Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me”), Weaver Hawkins, 1970
A very ancient feast slipped by for many this week – the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It commemorates the dedication of a church by that name in Jerusalem in the early fourth century. Sometimes it is associated with ‘the finding of the true cross’ by that extraordinary relic-collector, St Helena, the wife of the Emperor Constantine.
At the heart of the life-death-and-resurrection of Jesus, the cross is the core symbol of our faith. So rich a symbol, it even transcends the context of faith – such as in The Red Cross, or the many awards for sacrifice and valor in the form of a cross. But I have often mused at how easily we display and even wear such a symbol, especially as a crucifix, displaying the body of the executed Jesus. When one thinks about it, it so graphic and confronting. How many times these days do we hear newsreaders alert us: “Viewers are warned that some of the following images in this story may be upsetting.” And they are. Perhaps familiarity with the cross and the crucifix has numbed us. But St Paul knew its power to confront: “Here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, and to the pagans madness.” (I Cor 1:23)
I have often struggled with some of the theology offered to explain the cross. In response to whatever was the sin of Adam and Eve, was the death of Jesus really needed or demanded as a sacrifice to appease a hurt/angry God? Was it an atonement, was it a substitution (Jesus taking on all our faults to make restitution for our collective sin)? I appreciate there are a lot of theological subtleties here, but it is hard to avoid seeing God the Father presented as dealing rather brutally with his Son. Finally, in one Gospel, Jesus himself describes his death as a ransom – but if so, a ransom paid to whom?
More recently I have been interested in the thoughts of a thirteenth-century Franciscan philosopher/theologian, Duns Scotus, beatified not too long ago by Pope John Paul II. Scotus believed that the Trinity from the very start wanted to share its life and love with humankind. Scotus loved that oft-quoted line from John’s Gospel: “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Through that Incarnation, as God-among-us, Jesus would show us how to be drawn up into the Trinity. Scotus suggests this desire of the Trinity predated, and was independent of, “the sin of Adam”. In fact, Scotus believed that the Incarnation would have happened even if Adam and Eve had not sinned at all! For Scotus, this means God acts freely and generously out of love, not out of a response to our sin.
In the light of that, what do we make of the death of Jesus? Simply that it puts him in the line of all the prophets who were martyred because they stood up for what was good, right and true. Prophets throughout history who were both religious and “secular”. People who saw individuals, societies or governments acting against human dignity and the common good and who were prepared to call what they saw for what it was. And they paid the ultimate price. The difference with Jesus was, of course, that he was raised from that death by his Father.
So does the cross have anything to say to us today? Of course it does. There are many interpretations for our times, but one application which gives me cause for reflection is by Ignacio Ellacuría SJ. He was one of the six Jesuits (together with their housekeeper and her young daughter) who were assassinated in the University of Central America, El Salvador, in 1989 for their conscientising of the people and standing for the rights of the oppressed. He wrote this, not long before he was killed:
Among all the signs we see in every age – some of them obvious and some of them barely perceptible – there is always one that stands out, in the light of which we can discern and interpret all others. That sign is the historically crucified people, which is always present, although the historical method of crucifixion constantly changes. This crucified people is the historical successor of the Servant of God, still deprived of human form by the sin of the world; still robbed of everything by the powers of this world, which snatch away even his life – especially his life.
At one point in the Gospel, Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily, because (being human) he knows we all face such crosses daily. But this puts us in good company. His company. Margaret Silf would rank among the best interpreters of Ignatian spirituality today. In a recent book which takes us through imaginary conversations with Ignatius, entitled Call Me Lopez, she describes how Ignatius would see the cross. It is an insightful quote with which to conclude:
At the foot of the cross is where we learn the most about ourselves and our response to God’s call. There we learn how deeply we are complicit in those aspects of human activity that are death-dealing, and we also understand the depth of God’s compassion for the ways we, ourselves have been damaged. We meet our own helplessness, face-to-face, in the suffering of a helpless Jesus. We face our worst fears and most abject failures and see how God holds it all in loving hands, inviting us to step, with Jesus, across the threshold of transformation.