A reflection on Isaiah 53:4-6, offered by Jamie Howison at the Wednesday evening Lenten evening prayer liturgy, March 14, 2012.
He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;” “by his wounds we are healed”; “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Every year during Lent and Holy Week we hear read aloud these and similar words from Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant, but I wonder to what extent we actually contend with them. It is too easy to hear such words and without really thinking just take them to be words about Jesus Christ. He died for us, and that death atones for the sins of the world. As Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
And yet it is impossible to know precisely what Isaiah had in view when he offered us these images. Perhaps it is Israel itself, broken and suffering in captivity in Babylon. And notice that Isaiah speaks not of death but of suffering. It is no doubt true to say that whatever else he understood his poetry to mean, just about the last thing he would have had in view was the idea of a dead Messiah.
How, too, can deep suffering reasonably be proclaimed as bringing about a good? We avoid suffering, and recoil when we see other humans caught in its grip. We recoil, or maybe in that emotional exhaustion called “compassion fatigue,” we reach for the remote and change the channel on the television.
Isaiah’s “poetry cannot be reduced to a rational formula,” says Walter Brueggemann. “It must remain poetry that glides over rational reservation. We are not told how hurt and guilt can be reassigned and redeployed from one to another. We are not told how the suffering of one makes healing possible for another. But it is so here; ‘we’ have thus been healed and made whole.” And at this point Brueggemann notes that Isaiah offers no theory of atonement; nothing of the mechanics of how this might happen. “Instead, the poem offers a confession, an admission, a dazzlement, and an acknowledgement.” “And by his wounds, we are healed.”
We are healed, we are made whole, but is there any sense that we have been lifted beyond suffering and struggle? Perhaps ultimately—that is part of the deep mystery of Christ, whose blood shall give a final peace to the whole of heaven and earth—but in the mean time? No. There remains the suffering of grief over the death of a loved one, the physical and emotional pain experienced in our sometimes all too vulnerable selves, the suffering that comes with having cared enough to risk love. Paul even writes of how he wants “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,” (Phil 3:10) by which he seems to be saying that to follow Jesus is to be prepared to do as he did. That kind of “following,” though, can also do its own very particular kind of work.
During the opening years of the Second World War, a Polish Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) provided shelter in his order’s friary to countless refugees, including some 2,000 Jews. For his efforts, on February 17, 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo, and three months later was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. Just two months later, a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, the consequence of which was for ten other prisoners to be starved to death in the camp’s notorious Block 13. One of these men selected at random was Franciszek Gajowniczek, who cried out in a kind of agonized protest that he had a family to whom he hoped to return. At this point Father Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.
After three weeks in the starvation cell, Kolbe and three others were still alive, and so in the end he was killed with an injection of carbolic acid.
Of this portion of Isaiah’s song of the suffering servant, Brueggemann writes, “This is no cold, detached, reasonable statement. It is, rather, the voice of those who have been healed and are as bewildered as they are grateful.” As bewildered as they are grateful…
Franciszek Gajowniczek survived his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and later recalled:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me—a stranger. Is this some dream?”
The voice of one who has been saved, and who is as bewildered as he is grateful.
“For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact he was with them to the last.”
“I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.” Though tattooed as Auschwitz prisoner number #16670, it was the imprint of Christ deep on Kolbe’s soul that defined him that day. Beyond cold, detached, and reasonable ways of knowing, something so upside-down as suffering and dying for a total stranger became a powerfully restorative act.
And by Christ’s wounds we are healed. Healed, and perhaps made ready to follow.