St. Anselm and the Cross of Christ

This post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers in the Cymry’r Groes, Llanelwy – the Welsh People of the Cross in St. Asaph. A new group of dedicated young people in the diocese who are seeking to be faithful disciples in the way of the Cross. St. Anselm of Canterbury, Pray for us!

When talking to Christians in Cambridge, I’ve realised the prevalance of a truly regrettable interpretation of the Cross and, on this great feast of St. Anselm (whose book Cur Deus Homo provides an alternative reading of the Cross), it seems an appropriate time to (briefly) blog about it here. The view I often hear is relatively simple: the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, it was an appeasement to a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this theology, the crucified Jesus is like an innocent c1crucifx.jpghild thrown into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its fierce wrath.

‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’

But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the oft quoted passage from St. John’s Gospel: ‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’ St. John definitively reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic pagan divinity whose bruised personal honour needs to be restored; rather God is a loving Father who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered away from him and into danger.

Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbour indignation and wrath toward the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus God sends his Son, not hoping to see him suffer to satisfy to his anger, but compassionately to set creation right, to recreate us.

St. Anselm, the great medieval theologian whose feast day is today, who is often unfairly blamed for this cruel theology of satisfaction, was perfectly clear that this was not what he meant! We sinful humans are like diamonds that have fallen into the mud. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not truly have solved the problem. It would not have restored these precious diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to recreate the beauty of creation, God entered into the mud of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and polished them to their original radiance.

To do this of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of unimaginable compassion.

Jesus said that any disciple of his must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The Cross, in short, must become the very structure of our Christian life.

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection:
for by virtue of the cross,
joy has come to the whole world.


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