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How to Understand the Cross

We shouldn't get enamored of some theory to 'explain' the cross. There's a better way to 'get it.'

We should wonder at the mystery of the cross.

This Lent, I have spent some time thinking and reading about the theology of the atonement—of how it is that Christ’s sacrifice reconciles us to God. As anyone acquainted with theological history knows, this is a large subject, a controversial subject. Any approach is fraught with peril, with the possibility that we might unintentionally substitute some mere human metaphor for the mystery of our salvation. As one of my professors used to say, “if you need a theory to know that Jesus died for your sins, then worship that theory.” That was and is a profound statement, probably more astute than I realized at the time. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

For now, let me just observe something strange. When it comes to the Resurrection, we tend to acknowledge the absolute transcendence of the event. Indeed, part of the Church’s understanding of the event itself is that it is not witnessed—icons of the Resurrection traditionally show not the Resurrection itself, but the harrowing of hell—and therefore, though it can be witnessed as true after the fact, it remains in itself a matter of faith. Further, the claims about the powers of the resurrected body—clarity, impassibility, subtlety, agility—are fundamentally claims about the supernatural transformation of the human body.

In other words, no one seems to be interested in explaining the Resurrection in terms of natural logic. No one seems interested in suggesting its “necessary” characteristics based on the intrinsic workings of nature or justice, because we take for granted that the thing exceeds nature in every way.

Yet when it comes to the Cross, we love explanations. In the West especially, we are fond of what scholars call “forensic” explanations, which focus on questions of justice. How is it, in other words, that the death of Jesus reconciles us—in the scenario of a guilty party standing before a righteous judge—with God?

Here we find Anselm’s classic model of “satisfaction,” where the God-Man is able to pay the impossible debt of honor that humanity owes to God for sin. Not too far off is the “penal substitution” idea popular among most Protestants, where Christ takes for himself the necessary punishment for our sins.

These “forensic” models are less popular in the East, yet the language of justice is readily found in Eastern liturgical commemorations for the day, so we can’t understand this by driving an artificial wedge between East and West and suggesting that one or the other is somehow distorting the authentic Patristic understanding. The problem with so many of our modern approaches isn’t that the metaphors are bad, but that we’ve forgotten the mystery the metaphors seek to illuminate and, in some cases, seek to explain away. Somehow, by offering his life on the cross, Jesus deals with the consequences of sin and evil and at the same time restores us to right relationship with God. Although we can try to understand that, like all the other mysteries of the gospel, this is not irrational, we cannot really explain it in a way that is readily translatable. It is a unique reality in its own right.

The main reason to insist on this is that God is not part of nature. We can appreciate the ways that “sacrifice” as a concept can affect our relationships with one another. Your gift to me convinces me of your sincerity in apologizing for an offense. My gift to you communicates the seriousness of my love. Yet on both sides, these effects of this-worldly sacrifice make sense only in terms of need, and of a lack of transparency between persons.

If I could see directly into a person’s soul, I would have no need for some external sign of his contrition. God’s knowledge of us is absolute and intuitive. He doesn’t know us at a distance. He knows us inside and out, better than we know ourselves. Nor does he need anything. This is, especially, the problem in so many popular modern ways of talking about the cross; they leave us with the impression that God somehow needs someone to be punished, or that he needs our worship, or that his wrath is just out of control and needs to be calmed down. But God doesn’t need any of those things. If he did, he wouldn’t be God, and he certainly wouldn’t be worthy of our worship.

Yet the cross remains. And it is a mystery every bit as supernatural and transcendent as the Resurrection. That’s the first step toward real understanding—the acknowledgment that this is not something that can be explained away like some normal earthly reality. Somehow, in the cross, the God who needs nothing receives the offering of humanity in the God-Man. Somehow his suffering—an evil and a corruption that is, in itself, absolutely meaningless and irrational—is transformed by the creative power of God into meaning itself. Death becomes life. Let’s not try to explain that away as if we can make sense of it with a handy theory.

Today we are asked to look at it directly and to offer our worship. There, maybe, is another key to unlock the sweetness within. Worship. As I said, we’re here not to worship a theory, but to worship the God who died for us. This is what we were created to do: to glorify God forever in heaven.

Theologians have sometimes pointed out that Scripture begins and ends with marriage. Marriage is, in the eyes of the Church, a sacrament—not just in the sense that it is a gift of grace for the individuals in it, but that it is a sign of a great reality, Christ and his Church. On Good Friday, we have the wedding.

In our marriage rite we use a striking old English phrasing during the exchange of consent: “With this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship.” That is, I give myself to you entirely. What a strange mystery: the divine Son approaches sinful humanity and says, With my body, I thee worship. I give myself to you entirely. I am yours if you will have me.

It is a strange way to give himself. But then again, maybe not, for this is the world that we have made. This is the world where we rejected God’s gift of immortality for the sake of something that looked pretty. This is the world where, generations ago, we turned against one another for the sake of pride, of lust, of fear. As Ratzinger puts it, “the fundamental principle of the sacrifice is not destruction but love. And even this principle only belongs to the sacrifice to the extent that love breaks down, opens up, crucifies, tears—as the form that love takes in a world characterized by death and self-seeking.”

Indeed, Holy Church, in her liturgical rites, asks us today to worship and to understand not so much the necessity of the Passion in cosmic metaphysical terms, but the fact of the Passion and our personal part in it. God loves us. And this is what we did to him. And we do it again and again every time we sin. But in his supernatural goodness, he can take this evil and turn it to good. His love is not destroyed. Embrace that love. Kiss the feet of the crucified. Lament your sins, and turn in love back to the one who created you for this purpose.

We worship thy Passion, O Christ! We worship thy Passion, O Christ! We worship thy Passion, O Christ! Show us also thy glorious Resurrection! (15th Antiphon from Byzantine matins of Great and Holy Friday).

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