by Ethan Hicks
O LORD God, whose blessed Son, our Saviour, gave his back to the smiters and hid not his face from shame; Grant us grace to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full assurance of the glory that shall be revealed; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Collect for Holy Tuesday
1928 Book of Common Prayer
Today is Holy Tuesday. It doesn’t usually get a special name on the Christian calendar, but I would like to take the liberty of calling today Smiter Tuesday, inspired by today’s Collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The Collect is one of the most haunting of the year. In it we not only encounter Christ’s love, but we are also confronted with our hatred of it. We smite the back of the one who came to embrace us. We turn our faces away from the God who desires to kiss us with the kisses of his mouth.1 In this brief article let us meditate on why it seems so natural, in ways both explicit and in ways subtle, we smite such love. In doing so I hope we will further penetrate the mystery of this holy season.
First, we should consider the nature of love. Scripture tells us that God is love.2 Ancient authorities remind us that love, and therefore God himself, is “self-diffusive.”3 What is meant by this is that Love moves down a gradient, from where love is abundant and towards where love is lacking. True love is sacrificial, in other words. Not self-seeking or boastful. This movement is what Christians mean by divine mercy. God’s mercy is his inclination towards the broken, the abused, the lonely. What we should conclude from this is the simple but easily forgotten truth that God desires nothing for us except our good, ever. He cannot desire anything for us less than himself, and he is Love. It is for this reason the Prayer Book teaches us to pray: “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”4
God’s mercy towards us also tells us something about ourselves. It tells us that though we are sinners and guilty of doing evil acts, God, as evidenced by his assuming our very nature, yet sees us in need of love. But if God loves us, then whose love are we lacking? I would argue that part of why the Word became man was to show us we lack love of ourselves.
I come to this conclusion on the grounds of the fall, as recorded in Genesis.5 Without unpacking all the complexity of that event, suffice it to say that God did not love us any less when we sinned; he is immutable. To prove this, simply consider that you and I exist. If God were for a moment to cease loving us we would not be. Even the devil is loved insofar as he still has being. Rather, we rejected God. Because God is love, our rejection of God was also our rejection of his love. In so doing we rejected the crux of our dignity: the love of God for us. This is crucial since we are made in God’s image. We have denied the Love in whose image we are. Hence, to deny Love is to deny ourselves. We know this intuitively, we know we are in poverty, at unrest, and in disunity with ourselves. We deny this poverty by looking to acquire wealth through money, being greedy, through flesh, being lustful, and through possessions, being envious and covetous. Consider this: if love is self-diffusive, then what is self-concentrating (such as greed, lust, and envy) must be the logical enemy of love: hate, the essence of hell. Thus, contrary to the way we often think, indulging our desires through greedy and lustful acts is in fact more akin to self-hate than to self-love. We are ashamed to admit our poverty, to ourselves, to others, and to God, and by denying the truth of our condition we hold ourselves higher than we are. This movement is pride, the sin that underlies all other sin and flows contrary to mercy.6
Our tendency to self-concentrate and isolate is often a manifestation of pride, because behind it lurks the desire to hide or cover the shame of our poverty. Even for Christians there is the temptation after we fall into serious sin to think that to wallow in our shame and to shrink back from praying is the righteous thing to do. But this too is an act of pride. To withdraw, to self-concentrate, from God after sinning is in some way to distance ourselves from experiencing and accepting God’s love and mercy. Yet he desires to heal, not to mock. When in the Gospels did Jesus mock a penitent sinner? Often it was in the most vulnerable moments, when someone revealed their shame, that the divine mercy was most clearly displayed. A beautiful example of this would be the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34). When we sin, we ought to repent, confess our sins (to God, Faithful friends, priests), amend our lives, and resign ourselves utterly to God’s mercy. These acts work against our tendency to isolate and withhold. By confessing our condition, our sinfulness, we make ourselves vulnerable to the love of God and rob shame of its pride.
Jesus, true God and true man, was hated as much for being man as he was for being God. He was not only a man, but the truest man. Jesus’ life held a mirror to the face of those around him and it was for our self-hatred that we smote him. God, in Christ, showed us our poverty, and for that we smote the back of true Love. His life demands of us our vulnerability, our willingness to follow his example and hide not our faces from the shame of the crosses we bear. Rather, by his example we are taught to look with joyful assurance for the glory that is to be revealed. The cross is the enemy of our pride because there is no pride in pouring ourselves out, dying naked and elevated, exposed, and vulnerable to the world and before the face of our loving Creator.
This Holy Tuesday, let us remember the smiters. They teach us how easy it is for us to hate ourselves and even feel pious while doing so. God desires only our good, and we must learn to simply accept that he loves us and trust him enough to stand before him naked and destitute. He will not mock our poverty. Rather, he will generously lavish upon us a wealth of Love stronger than death and hell. In the end, this Love will quicken our mortal frames and bring us clothed in Christ’s righteousness to stand before the Father, but only if we persevere. Onward towards Calvary.
1. Song of Solomon, 1:2
2. 1 John 4:8
3. Pseudo-Dionysius, the Divine Names (Chapter 4) and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, First Part, question 5, esp. article 4.
4. Prayer of Humble Access from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
5. Genesis 3
6. James 4:6