The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Truth of the Cross

A young man whose wisdom belied his age once said to me: “Don’t worry about being original. Just be true.” That is sound advice for anyone entrusted with spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ—which includes all baptized Christians. We do not—indeed, dare not—invent anything or pretend to be someone we’re not. We simply must speak the truth—be the truth. And what is truth as far as Christians are concerned? Allow me to reply by stringing together (not inventing!) a few key passages of Scripture:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. If any wish to become his followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that he commanded. Remember, he is with you always, to the end of the age. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (cf. John 3:16-17; Luke 9:23; Romans 6:5; Matthew 28:19-20; Hebrews 13:8).

This compendium of the Gospel, so to speak, contains some hard certainties upon which we are likely to stub our toes occasionally. It speaks of the unbounded mercy of God, of redemption, and of eternal life (not like this life, but with a “resurrection like his”). It speaks of the ubiquitous and unchanging qualities of God. Those are good; we like all that. However, it also speaks of self-denial, toil, and obedience. Moreover, it offers no escape clause from what we fear most—suffering and death. It presents us with the cross. We don’t like all that quite as much. How can God permit it?

Of course, I cannot offer an original response to that question. All anyone can do is retell or re-articulate the truth, because it’s already been said or written; it already is. And yet the question continues to linger. No matter how hard we try, we can neither answer nor dismiss it. It not only refuses to go away, but somehow manages to impel us to keep poking and prodding in search of a clue—any clue. Such is the power of truth. We know it’s there; we can try to deny or ignore it; we can try to explain it away or offer alternatives. We can try to denounce it outright. And yet, it has an unspeakable hold on us. Resistance is futile, it seems. If there is no truth in the question, then why do we persist in asking it, like Pontius Pilate examining Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) We want answers, of course, but the truth is that they’re all around us, woven into the fabric of our lives. That is a pretty important clue in itself.

For instance, in our sports-obsessed culture (in the spirit of truth, I must disclose that I am an avid baseball fan), we value offensive linemen in football who sacrifice their bodies in a mass of flying flesh to clear the way for a running back toting a ball. If he scores a touchdown, everyone notices him, not the linemen. In baseball, we cheer a batter who sacrifices himself as a potential hitter and base runner by laying down a perfect bunt that advances others on the base paths. The latter will move on to potential scoring position. The batter, however, is out (usually). Hence the term: “take one for the team.” The self is surrendered in pursuit of a greater good for many. On a more individual athletic level, a marathon runner maintains a punishing training regimen in preparation for an upcoming race. She gives up personal comfort, desires, and other pursuits to focus on winning a contest that may be months away—and which only one person out of perhaps thousands will prove victorious. Her eyes are fixed solely on the prize.

Of course, there are more worthwhile analogies from the non-sports world of daily life: a firefighter who endangers self to rescue another’s being or property; a family bread-winner who works more than one job to help make ends meet; anyone who, in various ways, escapes notice and quite possibly endures personal deprivation or disgrace while quietly contributing in some life-giving way to another’s welfare.

The value underlying such actions is something we recognize as being good, even if we are not particularly adept at practicing it ourselves. While it may be argued that “taking one for the team” or delaying gratification to keep one’s eyes on a greater prize is becoming less common in today’s world, we admire it when we see it, and are perhaps inspired to do likewise. It seems to be a truth at the core of our being no matter how strenuously our nature objects—like the will that struggles to rouse us from sleep to confront the day and its challenges when all we truly desire is to burrow back underneath the bedcovers. Our nature resists, but grace needs to discover the truth, to tell the truth, to be the truth. It wants to involve us in the story that is our lives—in humanity’s story.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus told Pontius Pilate. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 18:37; 14:6).  That grace rousing us from sleep, so to speak, is the voice of Christ from the cross. How can God permit it? Because he loves us too much not to permit it. While this is hardly the place for a theological discourse on free will and the effects of original sin, the Cross offers us a way out—the only way out. And to be effective, it requires our cooperation—the loving gift of self in response to God’s love for us. Remarkably, God desires to involve us in his merciful act of redemption.

At the risk of carrying the sports analogies above too far, the offensive linemen may block and the batter may bunt, but the running back and base runners must do their part. We are the runners for whom God makes the ultimate sacrifice (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), taking on our load, sacrificing himself, and clearing the way for us to race toward the prize of eternal life. While football and baseball were not around in St. Paul’s day, he was nonetheless familiar with the principle: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one” (1Corinthians 9:25).

While the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of others is acceptable (if not always observed), the cross is a scandal for many—even among Christians. It always has been. The disciples of Jesus struggled with the notion themselves. Their expectations were not met. They envisioned an all-powerful Messiah asserting political might in establishing an earthbound kingdom. Salvation was supposed to be about wealth and health and influence. Jesus stood all that on its head. He pointed to what prophets like Isaiah had foretold about a Suffering Servant, that the Christ would be pierced for human faults, crushed for our sins (cf. Isaiah 53:5).  Blessed are the poor, he said, and those who mourn, the meek, the merciful (cf. Matthew 5:3-11). God came to save all by being the servant of all, and those who wish “to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

This was incomprehensible and unacceptable. No matter how much he taught or how many miracles Jesus performed, the disciples didn’t get it. It was only in view of his later Resurrection and the insight gained by the subsequent descent of the Holy Spirit that things began to come together. Then, those first Christians began to go out into the world to tell the truth, to be the truth, by proclaiming Christ crucified. By his wounds, we have been healed—an unimaginable but far superior outcome compared with what they first had in mind (cf. 1Peter 2:24).

Centuries later, the Cross still disturbs us. Suffering and sin are realities we’d rather not think about.  Do we also subscribe to a gospel of wealth, health, and influence? While it certainly isn’t beneficial to focus solely on our sorrows, it’s also harmful to push the Cross aside as if it doesn’t exist. When we push the Cross aside, we push aside freely offered grace. The Cross, Jesus tells us repeatedly throughout the gospels, is the gateway to eternal life. Christ crucified gives meaning to what otherwise is pure madness, decay, and death. As the French poet Paul Claudel said, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.” He became part of our suffering, part of humanity’s story, in order to redeem it from within, and thereby involving us in his divine work of redemption. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said (John 12:32).

Here we confront the importance of the Incarnation of Christ in our daily lives—today. The Cross of Christ is not something we merely recall occasionally or fear that we carry all alone. It is our story, too, and his story is ours. It’s why “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).  As his disciples, we are called to make Christ present in the world through Word, Sacrament, and the example of a holy life; first, however, we must discern how Christ is present and working in our own lives, and deep within our very souls. This is Good News intended to give us hope along the way to eternal life. And so (to borrow a few phrases from Dom Hubert van Zeller in Approach to Calvary), when we are tempted to push the Cross aside, to neglect the Christian reality of necessary atonement, to disconnect our suffering from the Fall and from the Redemption and Resurrection that reverses the curse of Adam, we must recall Jesus’ words to us: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:23).

Viewed through the eyes of faith, the Cross offers us not an escape from our troubles, but a means by which the unholy is sanctified and death is transformed into sure and certain life. “There are times,” St. Jerome wrote, “when evils become the occasion of blessings and when God causes good results to follow from the sinful designs of men. A manifest example of this is the case of Joseph [Genesis 37, 45], whom his brothers, moved by jealousy, sold to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. As things turned out, this crime against Joseph marked the beginning of all manner of benefits for the father and brothers of Joseph and for the whole land of Egypt, so that Joseph could later say to his brothers: ‘Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good.’”

In my own life, I have slowly come to recognize that our crosses are not obstacles as much as they are opportunities for transformation and healing in ways that go beyond our present difficulties (though I make no claim of having capitalized on all those opportunities!). Pain, toil, sorrow, disease, and death are realities for each of us—part of the human experience. However, through the Cross, the Incarnation of Christ bridges the gap between humanity and divinity, between time and eternity. We don’t merely attempt to imitate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are the Church—the Body of Christ—in the world, and through it he not only suffers for us, but with us, and we with him. As St. Paul wrote: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

Living this mystery of faith through our trials leads to the startling yet comforting truth: We are not merely bystanders in God’s saving plan, and not only benefactors. By the grace of God, through Christ, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we are partners. Working in tandem with Christ, we shoulder the yoke of the Cross for one another and for all others. Self-giving then clears the way for self-fulfillment in the resurrected Body of Christ. In the end, the paradox of the Cross reveals humanity’s brightest hope within its darkest moment. God comes to us precisely where we don’t look for him. Our weakness is turned into his strength. Our hurt is healed in unexpected ways. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

This is the truth for all those baptized in Christ—“buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The newness of life for which we strive, as St. Paul said, is transformation by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern the will of God (Romans 12:2). The way to Eternal Life is through the Cross. It’s not original, but it’s the truth.

So, we move forward on this earthly journey to eternal life, embracing the Cross with our eyes fixed on the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:10-14). Impelled by love, we race for the finish, progressing from the foot of the cross to its head, from the human to divine, from the surface to the depths, from the exterior to the interior, from the particular to the universal, from the momentary to the timeless. As we do, we may not have all the answers, but we can faithfully live the questions, believing this truth: The Cross will always be a sign of contradiction for some, but it is meant to be a sign of love for all.
--Excerpted from The Way to Eternal Life:
By Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© Abbey Press, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment