What we can learn from the darkest part of the Christian story

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

I recently attended a communion service. The service had the typical vibe of small, conservative, protestant churches in the Midwest: the music was quiet an elegant, supplied by a solo piano; the senior pastor stood behind a communion table in front of the alter while the elders faced him with hands behind their backs; and as the trays of crackers and grape juice were passed no one smiled nor spoke in anything above a whisper. The mood was heavy and somber.

Eucharist, grape juice, wine, body and the blood

Before the crackers were passed, the pastor asked one of the elders to pray. A man prayed and we took the crackers. Then, after reading a few verses it was time to get ready to take the grape juice (it’s wine at other churches, grape juice at mine). The pastor said to one of the other elders, “Brother, would you pray and thank God for his blood?”

The elder he had spoken to picked up a microphone and turned to face the congregation. His expression was grave and he prayed as if he was recounting the cold hard facts of some vicious crime in a court of law. His prayer went something like this:

“Father, we do thank you for your blood. Thank you for the blood that was shed. You bled, and bled profusely for our sins…on the cross. Your blood washes us clean. And for that we thank you. Amen.”

As I listened to this prayer and experienced this service I just kept thinking: This is gross. This part of the Christian story is really, well, gross.

If you’re not a believer then I assume you might agree with me. All of this sounds a bit vampiric, doesn’t it? A church full of people drinking grape juice that supposed to represent the blood that was profusely bled out at the crucifixion?

If you are a believer please hear me out: I think the sacrament of communion is an incredibly important, sacred time in the life of any believer. I understand that the blood of Christ represents that he is the final sacrifice for sin, and is a theological tie to the sacrifices of atonement in the Old Testament. Indeed even at this service I was attempting, through prayer, to open up my heart to God confess my sin and praise him for my salvation.

That said, I listened to the elder say, “…bled, and bled profusely…” and then a minute later I held a cup of grape juice to my mouth as I heard the minister read from the text “this is my blood of the covenant…” All of that is really gross. Who wants to drink blood? Who wants to think about profuse bleeding while they are drinking anything?

It’s gotta get worse before it gets better

Have you ever seen “The Shawshank Redemption”?

I was a junior in college the first time I saw it. I lived with a roommate who was a filmmaker and a real movie buff. His DVD collection was pretty vast and when he heard that I hadn’t seen it (actually, at that point I’d never even heard of it) he quickly set up a time when me and my girlfriend could both be there to watch it. Literally, he would not rest for a week or two until we nailed down a date that we could watch it with him and some other friends. He went out of his way to set up an event to show us this movie.

*spoiler warning* The movie is about an innocent man who goes to prison. The film depicts the absolute brutality of prison life and it makes your heart ache with the violence and injustice of it all. Throughout his incarceration he’s hospitalized multiple times, raped by other men, beaten by the wardens who are supposed to be keeping him safe, and suffers a number of other atrocities and humiliations. During the film I kept cringing and looking away from the screen. My roommate would turn to me and the others and say, “Don’t worry. It’s gotta get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.”

In the end of the movie the protagonist (played by Tim Robbins) finally escapes the prison. In order to make his final escape he has to crawl on his stomach through a tight sewer pipe to get under the prison walls. When he emerges from the sewer he is covered in filth and stands rejoicing in the rain.

Don’t miss the not-so-subtle image here: in order to find justice he had to literally immerse himself in the feces and urine of the ones who had wrongfully imprisoned and abused him.

It’s gotta get worse before it gets better.

My roommate was right. It’s a great movie. I’ve only seen it once in my life but I vividly remember numerous scenes like I watched it yesterday. But in order for the protagonist’s victory to have the potency that it does it had to get really, really, bad first. Really, really bloody.

Back to communion…

Ask anyone familiar with the story of Jesus’ life – whether they are a Christian or not – and they’ll tell you that the climax of his story is his crucifixion. It’s the moment when he, an innocent man, gave up his life to wrongful imprisonment, violence, and ultimately death. His story ends with his resurrection and ascension to heaven, a hope-filled ending if I’ve ever read one.

But it had to get worse before it got better. It was bloody. He bled profusely on the cross. Before doing so he even created the sacrament of communion which serves the church as a permanent reminder of the importance of his sacrifice.

From a story perspective the crucifixion is the like the sewer Tim Robbins crawled through in order to get out of prison. The eternal hope Christians all over the world share is an afterlife in heaven where sin and pain are no more – sounds pretty good, right? But in order for that hope to be so good it had to get pretty bad.

And that’s where I was during the communion service – in the pretty bad part. I’ve attended communion services my whole life. I’ve heard the story of Jesus’ life preached and taught for years. But it wasn’t until last Sunday that it struck me how just plain gross it is to “drink his blood.”

As storytellers we will need to craft stories that take our characters to some pretty bad places too. They may not be crawling through a pipe of someone else’s filth, but they’ll need to be bloodied somehow. If in my next story I can capture the visceral feeling I had in that communion service, that cringe-inducing connection I had with the story of Jesus, I will consider that success. And I hope that my story’s ending will be that much more satisfying for readers.

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One thought on “What we can learn from the darkest part of the Christian story

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on death, music by Longwave « Tell Better Stories

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