This coming weekend we will observe a festival day that has been observed for centuries. Since perhaps the early Fourth Century, the Church has observed Holy Cross Day. The cross is important because Christ hangs upon it. This is enough of a reason for us to make everyday, Holy Cross Day. On top of that, however, is what we believe Christ accomplished; what he was doing as he suffered and died in such a grotesque and painful way.
The answer to the “why?” of the cross that most of us learned has something to do with how the death of Jesus paid a debt for us. That he died to pay for our sins to satisfy some cosmic, divine debt that had to be paid. If that is what you were taught and believe, you can thank a man named Anselm (1033-1109) who was Bishop of Canterbury and one of the most influential theologians the Church has produced. His theory about what Christ did on the cross came to be known as the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement.
Oddly enough, his thought on this subject remains a theory. The Church has never adopted his teaching as a doctrine. It sits beside other theories about “atonement” (what Jesus accomplished on the cross). But, this is the one people seem to know best. So, here’s the news flash in all this: I don’t think Anselm really got this thing right. That is not to say his thought has no merit. It does. The cross does indeed address the sin of the world and mine in particular. But that is a small sliver of the story and not entirely helpful in our age.
To say that, on the cross, Jesus died to pay for my sins alone restricts the power of the death and resurrection to, well, just the death part and to forgiveness alone. It fails to unite death with the resurrection, and so, leaves much unaddressed. It also only speaks to one form of suffering – my guilt; and it addresses only the sinner. What about the victims of sin? Those who suffer at the hands of others? Does not a crucified Messiah have something to say about being a victim of the powers and principalities in his cry, “My God! My God. Why have you forsaken me?”
When Jesus is raised from the dead, does that not change deeply what happened on the cross? The world said a very loud, “NO!” to Jesus and his whole life, ministry, and message. Those in power smugly thought they had put things “right” by killing the troublemaker. Resurrection, however, was God’s “YES!” proclaiming the world guilty and Jesus right; revealing the sin and evil of the powers that be. On the cross Jesus still reveals the arrogance and pride of those who would cut off helping the poor and needy; who would abandon the widow a refugee; who fail to tend to the least and lost of the world. If you are for that which creates victims and counts winners and losers, you are on the wrong side of the cross.
Then there is all of creation. Jesus is a creature nailed to the cross by evil. Jesus, the Christ, is also “the Word” that spoke creation into being; “the Word” that sustains life and light; “the Word” that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). In the mystery of the Incarnation, both creature and Creator are hung to suffer and die. On that cross is not only Jesus of Nazareth. carpenter, healer and all around “good guy.” On that cross hangs the creator of the world and so, all that is created. When Paul says, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains…” (Romans 8:22), the agonized cries of Christ on the cross give voice to the suffering of every creature, rock, tree that face the suffering brought by sin.
These are but the beginning of what the cross represents to people of faith. The cross is the lens through which we “live, move, and have our being.” It is right to honor who dies there, who overcame it, and what God did upon that lonely tree.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim Olson
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