The Scandal and Triumph of the Cross

For the last couple of sessions we have focused on the problem of sin, both the original sin that messed up God’s creation and the actual sins that we commit. Today, we will talk about the central action taken by Jesus to fix that problem for us. And we will work our way through some scripture and doctrines to see how the Cross is a blessing rather than a curse. And we will see how it is central to our mission as disciples of Christ.

Let’s just be reminded of the basic cycle we see in the stories of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament books. Somehow, they end up lost, sometimes in a desert, sometimes in slavery, sometimes occupied by a foreign power. God sends them a prophet, from Moses to Elijah to Amos and Isaiah. The prophet warns them and convinces them to see that they are in trouble because they have abandoned God, and the only way out is to go back to God and obey his commandments. They do that, at least for a while.

Then they slip into mixing in foreign religious practices with the true faith of Abraham and Moses, and that is where we read about the Baals and Moloch, which were gods of the natives in Canaan. The Hebrew prophets had told them not to mix with other peoples and their gods, but they did both. Later, they mixed with the culture of their current oppressor, so we read in the Books of the Maccabees how some Jews wanted to abandon their laws on dress and do public exercise in the gymnasium the way the Greeks did. Called to be a people set apart, they kept trying to fit in with their neighbors. And they would slide again down to a place of oppression and then God would send another messenger with the same message: turn back to the one true God, and live.

The parable of the landowner and the wicked tenants is one that is in three of the four Gospels, so I hope you remember it a little bit. Jesus would tell parables, which are stories used to illustrate a moral or theological point, and this one sort of sums up that cycle we just discussed. The tenants do not respond to the servants sent by the landowner. (The tenants are the chosen people, and the servants are the prophets, in case you’re confused.) Finally, the landower sends his son, just as God sent his son, Jesus, to his people. And in the parable, they kill the son. And in the Gospel, they kill the Son. Jesus uses a parable to retell the cycle of salvation history and to foretell his own death.

But Jesus was more than somebody’s son. He is the son of God. The great hymn in Phillipians chapter two speaks to the son’s sacrifice, and I am for now just looking at the first half of that hymn, which descends — as Jesus did — from equality with God, since the three divine persons are one Godhead, to become like us — a human being with a human nature — and obedient to the Heavenly Father in every way that over all those centuries his Hebrew ancestors had not been. He was obedient even unto death on a cross.

One of the great questions for theologians to unpack has been why did Jesus suffer on the Cross and die? In most religions, the God is not a weakling or a victim, but powerful and untouchable. In the Christian religion, God became Man and died on the Cross for our sins. We were redeemed. That word means “paying off a debt.”

The question that follows is, “Who was the debt owed to?” And for a long time many argued that Jesus was redeeming mankind from its bondage to Satan. So Satan was the bondholder that Jesus satisfied. But that really did not work because God does not owe anything to Satan, and Jesus is God.

So, it was St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century who gave a more satisfactory explanation of atonement. Atonement means what it seems to mean: getting to a place of harmony where everyone is at one with each other.

I have put the four steps Anselm used here so we can see two things. First, this is the kind of logical approach theologians used as they developed doctrine. Second, Anselm shows us that the offense was against God and so the debt should be paid to God and the payment should be appropriate to the offense. But who could make such a payment except God? But who had made the offense except mankind? And so a man must make the payment, but it is a payment only God can make. St. Anselm shows that by coming as a human and sacrificing himself, the God-Man Jesus Christ can make the payment only God can make and does make the payment only a human should make if it is to really satisfy the offense.

And now we see the second half of the great hymn from Phillipians. These three verses rise up with Jesus to his throne in heaven where everyone should call him Lord and Master to the glory of God the Father.

In those six verses from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Phillipians we see why the Cross is so important. It is a great reminder that we cannot get to Easter Morning without Good Friday. And it is a great reminder of why Catholics always put a corpus — a body — on the cross. Somebody died on the Cross so that we might live. And it’s why the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is a feast: we found the True Cross on which that somebody — Jesus Christ — died, and we venerate it because of what he did on it.

So let’s get just a bit technical on why the cross as a way to terminate a human life was so awful. It was known to be awful, something developed in modern-day Iraq and Iran, used by Alexander the Great, and adopted by the Romans to send a message to troublemakers.

Rebels, military deserters, and later, Christians, were the main recipients. It was almost never used to execute Roman citizens. St. Peter and St. Paul were both executed in Rome in the first century. The Roman citizen Paul received the merciful sentence of beheading by sword while the Galilean foreigner was crucified on Vatican Hill across the Tiber River.

It took a long time to die on a cross. They had almost always whipped the victim before they attached him to the Cross. They made sure he could not get loose, but they wanted him to hang so that he would slowly asphyxiate. And shock would accelerate the process. Since the soldiers could not leave until they knew the victims had died, sometimes they broke the legs or stabbed the victim to hurry up the process. We see that in the story of the Passion in the Gospels, don’t we. And knowing how one dies from this process, it makes those seven last words from the Cross even more powerful. Think of what Jesus had to do in order to be heard from the Cross when he’s slowly suffocating.

The Cross was a symbol of subjection in the Roman world, but for Christians it is a symbol of victory. Every year on September 14, we exalt in the Holy Cross. It is a sign of our faith. Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him if we want to claim him as Lord. That’s a hard message, as St. Paul acknowledges. It is difficult to accept the crucifixion as absolutely central to our faith. But we must. We preach Christ crucified, he says, but everyone was waiting for the next King David, who would restore the kingdom of Judah. Thus it was a stumbling block to the Jews, and the pagans just could not get their minds wrapped around such a blasphemous concept that God would die the most despicable death imaginable. This was a death reserved for the worst of the worst, but Christains celebrate it as the best of the best.

St. Paul reminds his readers that the ways of God are not the ways of men. What the world thinks is strong is often very weak in the eyes of God, and vice versa.

We celebrate one feast day, Good Friday, for some reasons I have already listed, but the main reason is this is Christ’s sacrifice. Those of you who are familiar with the story of the Fourth Cup can see that in establishing the New Covenant, Jesus was both victim and priest. He is the sacrifice, and he offers the sacrifice. And we now use unleavened bread and water and wine at the Mass, but the liturgy of the Eucharist is fundamentally the re-presentation of that sacrifice on Mt. Calvary. Every time a priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, the heart of what is going on is a re-participation in Christ’s one sacrifice on Good Friday.

And we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross because the Cross is as important as the Incarnation. We celebrate Christ’s human nature twice: Christmas and Corpus Christi. And we celebrate his sacrifice twice: Good Friday and Holy Cross. Tradition teaches us that St. Helena, who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine, went at age 74 to Jerusalem to find the tomb, which along with the rest of Jerusalem had been buried in rubble about 200 years earlier by the Romans after the last big Jewish rebellion. They found three crosses, and they knew which was the true Cross when a terminally ill person was healed when laid upon it.

The Christians in Jerusalem had a number of pious devotions around the passion and death of Jesus, such as venerating the cross and the stations of the cross. St. Helena’s discovery brought some of those devotions to Rome. At some point about 300 years later, the Persians got the True Cross but then it was returned to Constantinople, which at that point was the last seat of the Roman Empire.

As a people sent into the world by Christ, we have to go equipped as he instructed. We must carry our cross as he carried his. We must not let the Cross be a stumbling block but it has to be the heart of our faith. We know it looks completely bonkers to non-Christians, but that is ultimately their ignorance. The Cross is actually a source of strength, and it gives us joy in the world that is so wounded by sin. Make sure you have a crucifix visible in your home. Make the sign of the Cross when you say grace at the local McDonalds. Bless your children with the sign of the cross. Come to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance below the Cross of Jesus Christ. Then take that power, that glory, and let your light shine.

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