Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Luther on the Blissful Tree

In 1871, the Augustana Book Concern published a volume of Luther's Passion sermons (via Internet Archive). It was intended for devotional rather than scholarly use, and gives no sources nor even the name of the translator.  We haven't time just now to track it all down in the American edition.

But the Tenth Passion Sermon, as given in this little volume beginning on p. 159, has a few memorable bits right near the end, which we may work into our own Good Friday sermon this year.

Luther considers the age-old question of whether the Cross, an instrument of shame, should give offense to Christians.  At first, he suggests that it is indeed offensive to us, because on it Jesus took upon himself our own curse.  Moreover, since God had already cursed anyone who should die on a cross (Deuteronomy 21:23), the Son now hangs there, "as one condemned, and as one whom God hates and visits now with shame and want and agony."

But wait, says Luther:  Let us look beyond first appearances, and judge not according to human reason, but to the Word of God.  
This we find to be  altogether different from that which we can see with the bodily eye. This disgraceful death which God has cursed is an offence to the eye, but to us it is a blessed death, for it takes the curse away from  us and brings God's blessing to us.
The tree which in itself is an accursed tree, is for us a blissful tree.  It is that precious altar, upon which God's Son offers Himself to God, His Father, for our sins. It is that glorious altar, at which He appears as the  true and eternal priest. For He is brought to the  tree, and He makes it a blessed altar, that we might be released from sin, and receive God's grace and  be God's children.

Luther is not saying that the Cross is not the sign of a curse, because that would contradict God's Word.  He is saying that, in addition to a curse, it is also the sign of a blessing.

He then launches into a touching encomium for the Cross of Christ: 
No wonder, then, that the old teachers entertained such excellent thoughts about the cross and the accursed tree. 
There in Paradise, they say, a beautiful tree occasioned our falling into sin and  death ; here, however, an old, dry -- yes, accursed -- tree occasioned our deliverance from sin and our receiving everlasting life. Here hangs God's Son with  arms extended as a testimony that He will cast no  one out, but gladly receive every one and draw all unto Him, as He says He will (John 12).  
His head  is lifted toward heaven, pointing out to us the way  of life eternal. His feet reach toward the ground where they bruise the head of Satan, that old serpent creeping on the earth, forcing from him all his power. 
There's a lot for a preacher to work with in this passage, especially the antitheses between "there" and "here," as well as between Christ's head and feet.. 

As an example of "the old teachers," we might look to Adam of St. Victor, whose Laudes Crucis atollamus was called by John Mason Neale "the masterpiece" of "the greatest Latin poet." It is not impossible that Luther had this hymn in mind as he wrote, particularly the passage Neale translates this way:
Hail, the Tree that brings salvation,
Tree of Beauty, Tree of Life!
O how glorious, how transcendent
was this Altar! How resplendent
In the life-blood of the Lamb!
Of the Lamb immaculate
that redeemed our ancient state
From its sin and from its shame.

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