‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’

 

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Being in theological college – especially in a college not affiliated to any particular Anglican tradition – introduces you to a host of debates and tension within the Church; some of which I was never aware of! Do we read the Apocrypha at Evening Prayer or not? Should we wear vestments at the Eucharist? What is a priest for? How do we understand the Bible? One such conversation that I had recently was with someone who suggested that the Catholic tradition in general and me in particular had an unhealthy fascination with the gruesomeness of the crucifixion – a fixation on death, darkness and blood. We were discussing the Eucharist and this candidate argued that her worship was more interested in light, joy and the risen Lord – in their Church, the Cross was empty and Jesus was usually depicted as smiling, welcoming children, ascending to the Father, blessing. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many, we cling too much to the cross and fail to look beyond it.

‘…but we proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1.23)

I am almost tempted to agree with this criticism (indeed, it was a light-hearted discussion). The simple fact is, that all the jolly stuff is great and we must rejoice in the wonder of our Saviour, but it is in the Cross that I realised how much I am loved by God – when I am hurting, or see the world hurting, it is to the cross of Jesus that I turn.

Of course, all the joy and beauty of the world reveals God’s love to us – our lives, our families, our friends all show us God’s love. When we marvel at the beauty of nature, art and music we see reflected the beauty and love of the Creator. As Pope Benedict once beautifully explained in Verbum Domini:

All of creation reflects the eternal Word of God who created it and forms part of “a symphony of the word, … a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn’… [Yet] in this symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This ‘solo’ is Jesus”

Jesus is a ‘solo performance’ which speaks of the love of God and, within this solo, it is his Passion on the cross – embodied in countless crucifixes in churches and homes – that most fully reveals God’s love. Jesus in John’s Gospel talks about the Crucifixion as his moment of ‘glory’ – that is, the moment when God’s nature will be revealed, the presence of God most powerfully known. Every crucifix, in a direct and visceral way, re-presents the reality of God’s love for us embodied in Jesus.

For me, the crucifix is an unparalleled aid to contemplating the love of God. Many saints and missionaries have used the image to communicate the love of God beyond words to those who would listen. St. Paul of the Cross, whose feast day was last week, would always carry a crucifix with him to show people ‘the miracle of miracles of the love of God!’

During our times of emotional, physical or psychological suffering, we struggle to rationalise – struggle to ‘think straight’ – to understand the truth that others are trying to tell us, or to remember God’s goodness and blessing. But, when suffering overtakes us and rational arguments fail we gaze on upon the Cross, unfailing and unchanging for centuries, and know the visceral reality of God’s love. That Love which understands human suffering and redeems it.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12.1ff.

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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