On May 6, 1937, radio commentator Herbert Morrison sat at the Naval airbase in Lakehurst, New Jersey waiting for the arrival of the Zeppelin Hindenburg, the largest airship that had ever flown. It was twelve hours behind schedule and, doubtless, Morrison was glad to begin recording: “Toward us, like a great feather … is the Hindenburg. The members of the crew are looking down on the field ahead of them getting their glimpses of the mooring mast…”(1)
But three hundred feet over its intended landing spot, the Hindenburg shockingly burst into flames. It was destroyed in precisely 32 seconds, all before the unbelieving eyes of a thousand spectators. Morrison’s breathless account of the tragedy remains a sad and recognized piece of American journalism, particularly his haunting cry “Oh the humanity!” which resonated with the impact of the disaster.
This phrase “Oh the humanity!” is now synonymous with any expression of surprise or strong emotion, but it was originally uttered by Morrison as a lament for the human vulnerability so brazenly materializing before him. As burning wreckage came crashing onto the ground and the crowd underneath did not seem to have time to escape, humanity appeared small and susceptible, and his was a cry of lament. The symbol of German grandeur, the aircraft deemed the largest and the safest, was reduced to an image of the fragility of human life.
Often reclaimed in times of despair or calamity, not unlike the one in which we currently find ourselves, the image of human life as vulnerable comes as a shock, even though we know it to be an accurate picture. We are not the towering pillars of strength we sometimes believe, but clay at best, which breaks and falls into pieces before our eyes. Our bodies are not as strong as we imagine, our sense of control grossly over-estimated. Careful calculations for what a lifetime should look like can be suddenly and irreconcilably stolen. Yet this mortality is an image we receive with disbelief, if not indignation. Consequently, because we are so often reminded of human weakness in the midst of tragedy, it is easy—and often valid—to associate vulnerability with lament. Sitting beside a cancer patient who has fought the disease with everything she has and is still losing the battle, fragility is something to bemoan. Standing within a refugee camp, where disease is rampant and the death rate unthinkable, human frailty is not only lamentable, it is infuriating. Human vulnerability can be heartbreaking. We might even ask: is it justifiable to see the inherent weakness of humanity as anything other than something to bemoan?
Not unlike the tragedies that jar us awake, the gospel and the cross within it remind us that human life is not invincible. Jesus spoke readily of his own death and wept at the grave of a friend. He crumbled in Gethsemane under the weight of the coming cross, sweating blood and praying through distress. At the very heart of Christianity is one who suffers terribly and dies in anguish. The cross-shaped path of a suffering servant is certainly an image of vulnerability. The apostle Paul, too, racked with persecution, shipwrecks, and beatings, wrote of our bodies as clay jars, hastening back the image of a mighty King David who lamented that he had become like “broken pottery.” Scripture clearly puts forth the story of a fleeting and afflicted humanity.
And yet importantly, this image of humanity is not always put forth as a lament. A theological mentor diagnosed with an incurable cancer, Todd Billings speaks of the church as a curiously countercultural place where we find both ongoing lament and ongoing rejoicing from the same, admittedly fragile, creatures. “[W]e celebrate the new birth of a child the same day that we prayerfully walk with another through the valley of death. It’s all in the same ‘space.’”(2) This is true because the cruciform shape of Christ’s love is such that every facet of our humanity can somehow be held and made new. Christ calls to us within our weakness—and within his own weakness—imparting to us the staggering, paradoxical hope of abundant life in and through brokenness, and the assurance that we are in the hands of our good Creator. In the midst of his own jarring reminder of human frailty, in fact, Billings has come to see his story as “being incorporated into Christ’s cross-shaped path.”(3) The slain and yet standing Christ presents a way in which our finite stories can be taken up and folded into God’s own, he attests. Paul concurs; human fragility is “[W]e have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”(4)
The Christian story does not merely tell of the life to come, of resurrection and restoration, certainty and comfort; Christ is not an escape raft for the hard realities of this world. On the contrary, the gospel must figure into what we think about our humanity in the midst of it all. In the cross-shaped path of Jesus, we are given a way to share with God what it means to be human here and now, in lament and in rejoicing, through suffering and tragedy, when vulnerability and helplessness lay us low, and we are reminded of our own finitude on a global and personal scale. Here, lamentation is often befitting, but its counterpart is not out of reach. For quite thankfully, Jesus is not only familiar with the tragic sense of human weakness, he also willingly embraced affliction that he could carry us through our own, incorporating us into his own story and the steadfast love of God forever.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “Oh, the Humanity!” Time Magazine, Monday, May 17, 1937.
(2) J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 107 and 176.
(3) Ibid., 179. For more information on Rejoicing in Lament or to hear Todd Billings describe his journey in his own words click here.
(4) 2 Corinthians 4:7-10.