Pondering the Cross

Women at the Crucifixion - Andres Mantegna

Women at the Crucifixion – Andres Mantegna (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus is finally revealed to be the “Messiah,” one anointed by the Creator to change the world on behalf of the created.  Jesus immediately explains to his followers that being the anointed one of God means he will suffer rejection and pain to the point of death.  When Peter is horrified, Jesus explains that his friend is looking at the moment of Jesus’ execution from a human perspective, not a divine one.  To help him understand, Jesus gathers the whole crowd and explains that life is more than our physical existence, and that if we live for the things that are eternal – rather than the transitory distractions of everyday life – we will truly live, forever.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Shortly thereafter, a voice from above reveals Jesus to be more than simply one of the anointed ones, the messiahs who – throughout history – have rescued humanity at God’s behest.  We hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved;  listen to him!”  Again Jesus is quick to clarify, “The Son of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days he will arise.”

Twice Jesus is proclaimed by others as one set apart by God, and twice Jesus speaks up to make clear that this does not mean glory, power, and respect – it means betrayal, torture, and execution.  To be the Child of God and the child of humanity, both, means to be stretched out on the altar of human fear, weakness, and greed.  Living at the intersection between divine truth and human experience, Jesus’ path has only one possible destination:  the grave.

In response, Jesus’ closest friends, those who were tasked with establishing his Church and passing on his teachings to subsequent generations, “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Not much has changed in the two millennia since. We are still confused and afraid of the idea that even the Son of God, that especially the Son of God, would be the victim of all of the worst elements of what it means to be human.  Over the course of history we have, in our fear and embarrassment, offered many explanations in the hope of applying some sort of logic to the incomprehensible death of God in human form.  We have argued that only the blood of the Messiah could ransom us back from the devil who had made us his vassals.  We have portrayed Jesus as a benevolent Lord who stepped in to pay the lengthy bill we have racked up against God, each itemized value representing the sum total of our failures on earth.  We have even depicted Jesus as a willing sacrifice before a God who demands the blood of an innocent in propitiation for our multitude of sins.

Although superficially satisfying, none of these rationalizations stands up to close scrutiny or logical analysis.  None is consistent with a God whose steadfast love never ceases, and whose mercies are endless.  An omnipotent God who seeks to offer mercy to sinners would surely not do so by cruelly punishing the only true innocent.  Simply put, the crucifixion makes no sense.

Those whose faith relies on simple formulas to explain the mind of Almighty God will be quick to point out that it does make sense if you recognize that the reasonable and fair punishment for every single human who ever lived is eternal torment and damnation in Hell, and that only the profound love of God, literally embodied in someone punished in our stead by the concentrated power of that divine justice on the cross, could save us from the fate we all deserve.

If that is true, then we are either at the questionable mercy of a tyrannical Creator who could not devise a system that avoided the murder of innocence and the eternal torment of all creation; or we are all part of a cruel and capricious universe that punishes us and our Creator equally.

As one uncomfortable with either conclusion, I must confess that I find all of the easy explanations for the nature of the cross to be unsatisfactory.  I think it is best to follow the example of Jesus’ own apostles, and recognize that in the death of Jesus there is a mystery that encompasses all our fears, and all our hopes – one we are afraid to understand.

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women who gathered to watch the kind teacher and powerful prophet suffer and die, we must simply stand before the cross in horror and grief.

Our horror is the realization that we are capable of such brutality and cruelty.  Our grief is in seeing in the loss of the Child of Humanity the losses that every human faces:  the deaths of our loved ones, the ends of our dreams, the depredations of illness and disease, and, ultimately, our own demise.  When we look into the pained eyes of Jesus, we see ourselves reflected in a mirror that shows our failings – individually and as a species – and our own pain.

It is the brutal honesty of the image in that looking glass that makes us want to find explanations of the cross that are centered on ourselves:  Jesus did this for our sins; God required this for our mistakes; look how horrible we are.  Maybe, though, we should look through that darkened glass and focus instead on the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus who exists as a strawman for our guilt.

I do not mean focusing on the humanistic, secular Jesus who fought for social justice, healed this sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the poor.  He is important, and we should not neglect him as part of the whole truth of the gospel, but standing at the foot of the cross is the time to ponder the divine Jesus, the holy Jesus who is – against all reason – both God and human in one wounded, bleeding, sobbing package.

Leaving aside all of our justifications and seeing only the person of Jesus, I am struck most powerfully by the inevitability of it all.  As Jesus said, to his disciples in Mark 8, this is what had to happen (δεῖ in Greek, often used to indicate an obligation or an inevitable consequence).  The very act of God taking on human form, of experiencing mortality, is not only death, but a brutal murder at the hands of a callous empire that places no value on human life.  Jesus stepped into our lives knowing that this must happen, and did it anyway.  Whatever the reason that it had to happen, the greatest miracle of the cross is that it did happen, that a God who is beyond our comprehension, our own Creator, is so drawn to us that nothing – not even the inevitability of agony and death – could hold God back from stepping into our lives.

Another miracle is that it is possible at all.  For many of us, the slow slog through adulthood is one of a gradual surrender of our belief in the miraculous.  We “grow up” and learn to live in the “real world,” and the myriad challenges of our mundane distractions cause us to deny the possibility that there is divine, holy, metaphysical reality beyond the one that demands that we feed our bodies and pay our mortgages.  Yet at the cross we can see the collision of the world we deny with the world of our limitations.  The reality of God becomes physical, not in a voice from the heavens or words carved on stone tablets, but in the lifeblood of a single person, given up freely out of love.

That leads to one more miracle of the cross.  The blood that falls to the ground looks like a loss, a terrible, incalculable loss – and yet it is a victory.  Every terrorist, every tyrant, every abuser has claimed their power through the threat of violence.  They hold us hostage with the ultimate menace of their power over whether we live or die.  However, as we see the shadow of the cross loom across the generations, we see that death is only defeat for those who lived their lives for the pleasures of the moment.  The paradoxical miracle of the cross is that in loss is victory, in sacrifice is gain, and in death there is life.  Our priorities do not need to be dictated by the standards set by others or by our own fears of loss, because real accomplishment looks nothing like what those with temporal power would have us believe.

If we focus on the person of Jesus, we see the miraculous mystery of the cross.  We see love that cannot be dissuaded.  We see the reality of the presence of God in our world.  Finally, we see the truth that that the things that matter most in our lives are not the things that can be taken away, they are the things we can give to those we love, to those we do not know, and even to those who will follow in our footsteps.  The story of the cross is not the story of our sin, it is the story of the person who represents the best of creation and the best of the Creator: the Child of Humanity and the Son of God.  It is the story of the glorious and traumatic consequences of eternity’s collision with mortality.  It is the ultimate story, in which all good things come to an end, and we learn that – all evidence to the contrary – endings are beginnings.

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Easter Wishes

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The earliest gospel account closes with the mystery of an empty tomb. The disciples found themselves at a loss to understand how to move forward without the teacher and friend who had claimed to be the Son of God but died the brutal death of an executed criminal.


Later accounts describe the return of Jesus from the dead, offering anecdotes in which his disciples touch him, walk with him, and share meals with him. It is then, when they have encountered Jesus alive and in the flesh, that Jesus’ followers are able to believe.

For those of us who try to follow in their footsteps, we are again faced with the dilemma of the empty tomb. We do not have the luxury of touching his scarred hands or watching as he breaks bread with us. We struggle with doubt. We fear that the time and energy we have put into following this itinerant carpenter were as wastefully spent as the herbs and perfumes that were futilely plied against the pervasive odor of decay in the place where they laid his lifeless body.

The only chance we have for faith in the resurrection is to find hope where the disciples found it: in the living Body of Christ. And therein lies the greatest challenge of Christianity. For us to believe, Jesus must be physically present in the world, but Christ is only present in the world if we are willing to become him.

Even still, for thousands of years the miracle of Easter has repeated itself time and time again. Against all odds, people find ways to rise above their weaknesses, fears, and selfishness to work for a world where the meek, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers are the blessed, the honored, and the privileged.

We cannot ignore the eternal hope joyfully proclaimed on this day everywhere around the world: “Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας!” (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death through death itself.) But we must also honor the miracle that keeps that hope alive and remakes it anew with every generation.

With those who share my religious tradition, I proclaim “Χριστός ανέστη!” – in honor of the risen Son and also in praise of all those who through their faith and sacrifice work to keep the Body of Christ and alive and present in the world.

With those of other traditions, I can understand why today of all days the claims of Christianity seem suspect. Time and again the Church betrays its promise and its potential. Even still, I hope that in each of our journeys we will hear the voices that call us beyond the limitations of fear and death. In this season of Resurrection, may we all find ways to keep alive those things that really matter, that allow us to become more than we are even in our dreams, that draw the presence of divine reality into our everyday lives.

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Reflections on Good Friday

Crucifixion - by Grunewald

Crucifixion – by Grunewald

The crucifixion is the most widely-known event in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that the instrument of his execution is the primary symbol for the religion established by his followers. For Christians, the moment of Jesus’ agonizing death at the hand of the Roman Empire is the central moment in history. As Frederick Buechner states in Beyond Words, “Jesus Christ is what God does, and the cross is where God did it.”

Knowing the significance of the event, however, is not the same as understanding it. Every era has produced new models for making sense of what took place at Golgotha. For early Christians, this was primarily a model of “ransom,” a concept that was replaced in the medieval era with one of “satisfaction.” For the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, a model of “substitutionary atonement” was the most logical, while more recent thought has applied a number of ideas, like the neo-orthodox one of “restoration” or the “exemplarism” first suggested by Peter Abelard.

Why so many (sometimes conflicting) theories to explain the one event that should be foundational and universal for all Christians? In part, this is simply the natural and necessary process of Christianity re-inventing itself to accommodate paradigm shifts in the culture. But there is a deeper reason. The crucifixion makes no sense.

Here is the most basic statement of the cross: God created a world in which the choices of that world’s inhabitants (who, like everything in that world, were created by God) forced God to brutally torture and murder the innocent and perfect, only, Son of God in the most agonizing and excruciating way possible.

What kind of god would do such a thing? On its surface, the reality of the crucifixion causes us to question either God’s kindness, God’s competence, or both. What sort of god would create a system where the only logical response to sinfulness – cruelty, selfishness, betrayal, and violence – is torture and execution of a kind, innocent man? How omnipotent can a deity be if the best world he or she can create is one in which the inhabitants will descend into a morass of self-indulgent sinfulness such that they will eventually execute the Son of God? To top it off – despite the divine sacrifice – the majority of them will still reject the offer of salvation and perish into eternal damnation.

Most Christians overlook these factors by focusing instead on the tremendous love God must feel toward humanity to be willing to offer up Jesus (and be offered up in the person of Jesus – Trinitarian doctrine is immune to logical contradiction) for the sake of humanity. They address any other logical inconsistencies with the doctrine of “free will” – humans were given the option to choose (or not) the sinfulness that ultimately led to the necessity of Jesus’ execution.

The problem with the doctrine of free will is that it only makes sense if you want to believe you’re one of the people who “chose” the right side, and can therefore be justifiably smug about your choices. Couldn’t a God who knows anything and can do anything have created a world in which everyone would have the experiences and information necessary to make good choices? If so, and God did not, then we are dealing with a cruel god indeed. If not, then God’s power and/or knowledge are seriously questionable.

These are not new questions, and both theologians and philosophers have pondered them – since the dawn of the Enlightenment – through the academic questions of “theodicy.” The classic, modern work on the subject remains John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love, and those wishing to explore these ideas comprehensively might also want to look at The Problem of Evil edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. It would be impossible even to summarize all of the different approaches to theodicy here, much less to resolve them.

So why bring them up at all? For two reasons. First, to point out to my fellow Christians – who are accustomed to taking the necessity of the crucifixion for granted – that the very idea of torturing and executing an innocent (for any reason, even the salvation of the world) is deeply problematic. Secondly, to point out to those outside the Church that Christians are – and have been for some time – keenly aware of the apparently nonsensical incongruity of a loving god who demands the cruel and brutal murder of the most perfect person to ever live before extending mercy to the rest of humanity.

So, if at best the crucifixion is “problematic” and at worst it is “nonsensical,” why will millions of Christians around the world gather tonight in silence for a Good Friday service that – for many of us – will include the ancient tradition of “Veneration of the Cross?” If the central moment of the faith tradition defies logic, why are there still so many of us in the fold? What is the point of Good Friday if it commemorates either a god who is incompetent or one who is malicious and cruel?

We gather because the cross represents the ultimate honesty about the human experience. At the foot of the cross, seeing the suffering that even God could not escape in human form – we come face to face with the harsh reality that to live means to struggle, to face betrayal, to feel hopeless and abandoned, to suffer pain and indignity and, ultimately, to die. Most of us find effective ways to distract ourselves from the consequences of our own mortality, but on Good Friday – contemplating the agony of the Prince of Peace as he is tortured at the cruel hands of empire and greed – the vulnerability of our human lives becomes raw and tender.

But we do not venerate the cross because of some misguided masochism or morbid fascination with death and despair. Because, gathered as a community of faith, we remember – alongside the truths that we would rather forget – the unshakeable reality that we are not alone. As Paul writes, Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

The message of the cross is not one of appeasement for an angry god, no matter how convenient that explanation may seem (assuming we do not stop to ponder what that really says about God). The message of the cross is companionship and compassion. We do not have a Creator who turned us loose into a violent world alone. Instead, our Creator has joined with us in the full experience of our everyday lives. No matter what the struggle, no matter how great the pain, no matter how dark or perilous the horizon – we can have the complete assurance that we are loved and supported by a present God who understands our fear and pain.

Why not instead serve a god who takes the pain away? Why not serve a god who never lets anything unpleasant happen to us? Apparently, that simply isn’t an option. The cross is also a reminder that even the only Son of God, who prayed not to face the suffering that awaited him, was exempt from the pain of human existence. For whatever reason, the world simply does not work that way.

And so, if you are seeking the cross, or seeking simply to understand why Christians seek the cross, do not approach it for fear of an angry god who demands that you accept his sacrifice or be damned for all eternity. Frankly, if the Creator of the universe is that capricious and cruel, we are all damned already. If, however, you suspect that beneath the tortures and imprecations – small and large – of everyday life, there is a source of hope and love and strength reaching out to sustain you – you are welcome to join the followers of Jesus in the shadow of one of the cruelest implements of torture ever known. It is in its shadow, the dark outline of the cross on blood-stained, that we see the arms of God spread wide to gather us in.

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Easter Meditation – 2012

Holy Women at the Tomb - Annibale Carracci

The earliest gospel account closes with the mystery of an empty tomb.  The disciples found themselves at a loss to understand how to move forward without the teacher and friend who had claimed to be the Son of God but died the brutal death of an executed criminal.

Later accounts describe the return of Jesus from the dead, offering anecdotes in which his disciples touch him, walk with him, and share meals with him.  It is then, when they have encountered Jesus alive and in the flesh, that Jesus’ followers are able to believe.

For those of us who try to follow in their footsteps, we are again faced with the dilemma of the empty tomb.  We do not have the luxury of touching his scarred hands or watching as he breaks bread with us.  We struggle with doubt. We fear that the time and energy we have put into following this itinerant carpenter were as wastefully spent as the herbs and perfumes that were futilely plied against the pervasive odor of decay in the place where they laid his lifeless body.

The only chance we have for faith in the resurrection is to find hope where the disciples found it: in the living Body of Christ.  And therein lies the greatest challenge of Christianity.  For us to believe, Jesus must be physically present in the world, and Christ is only present in the world if we are willing to become him.

Yet for thousands of years the miracle of Easter has repeated itself time and time again. Against all odds, people find ways to rise above their weaknesses, fears, and selfishness to work for a world where the meek, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers are the blessed, the honored, and the privileged.

We cannot ignore the eternal hope joyfully proclaimed on this day everywhere around the world: “Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας!” (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death through death itself.)  But we must also honor the miracle that keeps that hope alive and remakes it anew with every generation.

With those who share my religious tradition, I proclaim “Χριστός ανέστη!” – in honor of the risen Son and also in praise of all those who through their faith and sacrifice work to keep the Body of Christ alive and present in the world.

With those of other traditions, I can understand why today of all days the claims of Christianity seem suspect.  Time and again the Church betrays its promise and its potential.  Even still, I hope that in each of our journeys we will hear the voices that call us beyond the limitations of fear and death.  In this season of Resurrection, may we all find ways to keep alive those things that really matter, that allow us to become more than we are even in our dreams, that draw the presence of divine reality into our everyday lives.

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