The Absurdity of the Cross

Monday, April 12, 2004


The Absurdity of the Cross


Part One of Seven on the Cross

I've decided to take a break from direct discussion of politics for Holy Week. This week, I will be writing seven pieces focusing on the cross and what it means.

The first point I would like to make is that the cross, by itself, is meaningless.

This may sound like a very strange statement coming from one who at least claims to be a Christian. Those who have their doubts about my salvation may even be saying "Aha. Now we've caught him in blatant heresy if not outright blasphemy".

Let me support this position with a quote from the earliest extant writer to interpret the meaning of the cross for the Church. The great Saint Paul, himself, speaks of the foolishness and the vanity of the cross considered in itself:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)
I know, I know,...,critics will say that the cross is obviously not foolishness to those being saved. However, we are all sinners. None of us were born Christians. We are made Christians by the grace of God. In order to unpack what the cross really means, we need to look at it with fresh eyes. So take a moment today to reflect on the cross as "those who are perishing" might see it.

In order to do this, and to understand what I mean by calling the cross "absurd", we really need to look at the cross as though we do not know the end of the story yet.

Most of my readers have seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. I recall reading one review written by a Jew. He said that as he watched the film, he tried to watch it through Christian eyes. He tried to see in the action unfolding some sign of God's love. And he said he simply could not see this.

What he did take away from the film may have been a more "real" understanding of the cross than the average Christian contemplates. His understanding may be more "real" precisely because he did not accept the ending of the movie.

As he watched the film, great fear and sadness and anger overwhelmed him as he considered that the Romans crucified thousands of Jewish people, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and set in motion the great diaspora that would lead to centuries of persecution against his Jewish ancestors. He pondered the meaning of centuries of senseless human suffering.

This is "real", but maybe not the whole story.

Without the resurrection, the cross, viewed by any bystander, is nothing other than a man being senselessly tortured and executed in one of the most brutal ways imaginable.

As I watched the The Passion, the thing that struck me the most was the way Gibson puts various Psalms of trust on the lips of Jesus during the entire proceeding. In the film, Jesus is portrayed praying in the garden "vindicate me", and throughout the movie, Jesus never gives up hope that the Father will intervene in some way, and somehow this will make sense.

Yet, as I watched trying to view the scenes as one would view them prior to the resurrection, I was stunned by the meaninglessness of what was occurring, and the foolishness of Jesus' prayer if I were a bystander overhearing this.

A few years back, another controversial Jesus movie entitled The Last Temptation of Christ portrayed Jesus' last temptation on the cross as the temptation to simply live a normal married life.

If I recall correctly, Gibson portrays the last words Satan actually speaks to Jesus as something like this: "Certainly, you don't believe one man can save the world."

In today's Gospel, Jesus prays, "Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me. Yet, not my will, but yours be done."

The Church teaches that Jesus has a human nature and a divine nature; a human mind and a divine mind; and a human will, and a divine will. Jesus is not schizophrenic. Rather, just as we sometimes call things to mind that seemed forgotten, Jesus' human mind was not consciously omniscient. His human will operates like our human wills - influenced by the condition of human nature. Jesus felt true terror in the Garden.

What human beings fear the most is not a known suffering. What we fear the most is the unknown. Jesus entered fully into the human condition. His faith in the resurrection of the dead was like our faith in the resurrection. His knowledge that his suffering and death would have meaning in a salvific plan was like our own understanding of the mystery of suffering.

Again, I quote Saint Paul:
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vanity, and your faith is vanity too.
What gives us who look back on the cross a sense of purpose and meaning in the event was not true in the same way for Jesus in his humanity.

When we Christians face death, we are comforted by the promise of eternal life strengthened by our own encounter with the Risen Lord during our lives here on earth.

When Jesus faced his death, the notion of a resurrection of the dead was only a vague and distant future oriented theological opinion held by only certain sects of Jews. Jesus shared this opinion, but how much could his human mind possibly have "known" with certainty? Nobody had ever been raised from the dead before in the manner Jesus would rise. Nobody has risen in the same manner since.

In his humanity, Jesus had no experience to draw from to comfort him in the Garden or during the entire spectacle. Jesus faced his death trusting in his Father with no authority, no tradition, and no assurance from anyone that he would rise from the dead!

If Jesus prayed the way Gibson portrays, it is entirely possible that the human Jesus could have been praying to be delivered from Roman hands.

Such a prayer would be consistent with his entire life and preaching. For approximately three years, he had been saying that the reign of God was breaking in here and now. For approximately three years, he had been preaching that God is a loving daddy we can call "Abba". For approximately three years, he proclaimed a merciful God who gave sight to the blind, healed paralytics, expelled demons, and so forth.

Jesus' conception of God the Father was a God who responded to faith by moving mountains to make good things happen for those who love him. Almost certainly, as Jesus is praying "Let this cup pass", he is expressing a heartfelt desire and a prayer made in faith that his Abba would do just that!

If this is not what Jesus meant, we are making the entire episode of the cross mere play acting. Instead of a Jesus who fully embraces the fullness of suffering as it is known in the human condition, we would have a Jesus who merely pretends to suffer - or who suffers only a little bit.

On the other hand, to make the prayer "real" - a true cry for deliverance in his hour of need - is to accept that Jesus shared fully in the human condition and felt the same terror we all feel in the face of senseless suffering, injustice and death.

"Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave", as we heard in the second reading today. Christ emptied himself of his own divinity, not by changing his nature. Rather, in the incarnation, it is as though God gave himself so fully to us that he forgot himself.

How can God forget?

God doesn't necessarily forget, but the humanity of Jesus can forget! Perhaps an analogy would help. What parent hasn't occasionally forgotten themselves while caring for a sick child? In like manner, God forgets himself, and in the humanity of Jesus, he does not fully understand what is happening to him in the story of the cross while it is happening.

There will be those who object that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection. There are exegetical problems with interpreting these passages as the literal historical words of Christ. I accept the possibility, and even probability, that Jesus had some insight into the future and what would happen to him. Even Martin Luther King Jr. knew he would be martyred in advance, and I see no reason to doubt that Jesus had such an intuition.

Yet, even if Jesus had special revelations of what is going to happen to him, those revelations had to come to his human consciousness in a way that a human being can understand them (such as a dream or vision during deep prayer). Such experiences are no more subjectively certain for Jesus than they are for us. All human beings are tempted to doubt their own intuition!

From the viewpoint of the human Jesus, I am suggesting that it is possible that his suffering was both brutally physical, but also deeply psychological. At the hour of his death, Jesus was likely faced with the ultimate temptation, and it is a temptation we all face.

I do not think the last temptation of Christ was to simply turn his back on a mission he fully understood to live a normal life with Mary Magdalene. Nor do I think the last temptation of Christ involved Satan taunting a theology of the atonement the way Gibson portrays. Indeed, 1 Cor 2:8 states that had the "rulers of this world" (Satan?) understood the atonement, they would never have crucified Jesus.

The last temptation of Christ was probably much more common and mundane than this, and also more painful. It is the temptation we all face when confronted with the mystery of suffering and death. I conjecture that the last temptation of Christ was to believe that his Father had given up on him!

One of Satan's earliest (if not first) appearances in the Bible is in the Book of Job. The tester (also called the accuser) is an angel who patrols the earth putting people to the test and pointing out their faults to God. Satan, or "Lucifer" is the angel of light, the highest angel most like God - and easily confused with God.

In the story of Job, Satan is given permission by God to test a righteous man to see if he will keep faith. Job passes the test, but the reason for Job's suffering is never made entirely clear. At the end of the story, we are left with God simply saying, in effect, "Who are you to question me?"

At the end of the Gospels, we will have the resurrection. However, prior to the resurrection, what is happening to Jesus is what happened to Job. It is not necessarily God the Father desiring a blood sacrifice. Rather, Satan is putting Jesus to the test - and this time, Satan wants to drive Jesus much further than he drove Job.

The last temptation of Christ is that he is to be killed before Jesus, himself, deemed his mission is complete.

Jesus likely believed himself to be a messianic prophet in the spirit of Elijah, calling together the lost tribes of Israel for the final day when God, his Daddy's reign will break in and the general resurrection of the dead will occur. He is only 33 years old and still has work to do. He had only cleansed the temple a short time ago, and new Israel has not yet been established. His closest followers still don't fully get it. His mission to the Gentiles - to bring them under this new Israel - has only taken a seminal form with a few exorcisms, such as the Gerasene demoniac and the healing of the centurion's daughter and not much else.

And now, before the mission seems complete, he is facing imprisonment and torture with possible death. He prays fervently believing that the same Father who has been with him throughout his life, and especially these few years, will come forth now to show his power. Yet, with each passing moment until he breathes his last breath, the Father seems absent!

The absurdity of the cross is precisely that Jesus' death, taken by itself, is meaningless nonsense. It would go against the very image of God that Jesus portrayed to say that Abba wanted a human blood sacrifice, and there are no traces of a theology of vicarious suffering in the remembrances of the direct teachings of Christ that we could be deemed historical by Biblical scholars. The notion that Jesus' death atones for our sin is later Pauline interpretation of the event.

I am not saying Jesus' death did not atone for our sins. It did, and I will write more on this tomorrow. Only after the crucifixion and resurrection did the atonement come to be understood by the Church apart form what Jesus actually preached!

What I am saying is that the atoning aspect of the cross was not likely Jesus' own human interpretation of the events that were happening to him.

The temptation of Jesus was not to turn back from atoning for our sins. Such a notion probably never entered his head in the first place. The temptation that Jesus faced was precisely that his death made no sense to him, personally!

There is even a telling moment on the cross where the story tellers narrate that Jesus cried out "My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?"

Yet, even in this darkest moment, Jesus is not totally losing trust in God, and it is this trust in his divine vindication that is the main point of the narrative - not atonement.

Those of us who are Catholic know that prayers are often known by their first line, such as the "Our Father" or the "Hail Mary". The devout among the Jews prayed the Psalms several times a day. Those of us who pray the Psalms daily through the Liturgy of the Hours know how you come to memorize the prayers in time. Jesus' cry is the first line of Psalm 22. This Psalm perfectly describes Jesus' moment of agony, and ends in hope. The dying Jesus is calling on his faith tradition even in he darkest hour he has ever experienced.

To the very end, when he cries out "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit", Jesus trusts his Abba despite all empirical evidence that his Abba had abandoned him!

It is in the meaninglessness of his death to his own human subjectivity that God reveals something extraordinary about Jesus and about our own faith.

God the Father ultimately did vindicate Jesus. If we trust our loving Abba to the end, we too will be vindicated!

After the crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus were equally crushed. Even if we have a hard time understanding the full humanity of Jesus, we can certainly relate to the disciples immediately after the crucifixion. In their eyes, the world might as well have come to an end. Even if Jesus understood his mission as one of dying on the cross, his disciples did not understand. At the hour of crucifixion, humanity is confronted by an absurd triumph of evil, and asked to hold fast to faith!

In Matthew's Gospel, 28:17, we see that the disciples even doubted even after they encountered the Risen Lord. This reinforces the notion that even when a human being has special revelations, Satan tempts us to doubt - to stop trusting God, especially when the going gets tough.

Our faith only makes sense in the light of the resurrection.

If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, his prayer would have been left unanswered. He would not have been vindicated by his Abba. Those who mocked and killed him would have been proven right in their belief that Jesus was just an idealistic dreamer who was stirring up too much trouble. The cross would be nothing more than what happens to people who buck the system. The cross would be the story of just one more Jew killed by the Romans - sad, but hardly salvific, and hardly good news.

So, on this opening day of Holy Week, I believe that it is important that we look where we are truly headed. The end or goal of Christianity is not the cross. Our end or goal is the resurrection!

Many of us have been to confession, fasted, spent extra time in prayer, given alms or done extra charitable activities, and performed other acts of penance and self denial this Lenten season. We talk the language of picking up our cross frequently in Catholic circles. But being Christian should not be a desire to be a masochist. Our goal is not ultimately the cross, but the resurrection! This week is not preparation for Good Friday. Rather, the entire week leads up to Easter Sunday.

We join Jesus and all people who suffer senselessly this week and proclaim that suffering and death is not the final answer.

Unlike Jesus in his humanity, we have an experience that guides us through the darkest moments of our lives. We have encountered the Risen One in Word and Sacrament and in one another, and we go through the passion of the Lord knowing where everything is headed.

Saint Paul admonishes us in Phil 2: 14, keep your eye on the finished line. Do this as we go through this final week of Lent. Let us begin our Holy Week by realizing that without the end of the story, all we do is nonsense. The cross is absurdity without the resurrection.

Go to Part II: Is God the Father Bloodthirsty?

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posted by Jcecil3 3:15 PM

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