Here are a few preliminary thoughts as we get nearer to Holy Week. It is a week when we remember that, in our relationship with God, weakness can be a greater strength than anything the world has ever seen, failure can be success, a symbol of execution and death can become a symbol of victory and life, and where death and resurrection are simply sides of the same coin
The thing that inspired all the other articles of this post is the video by the Orthodox Father Behr on "The Cross as the Key to Understanding the Scriptures" when "the Scriptures" means what we call "the Old Testament". If you do nothing else, listen to that lecture.
Pope Benedict XVI on the Cross
For St Paul the Cross has a fundamental primacy in the history of humanity; it represents the focal point of his theology because to say "Cross" is to say salvation as grace given to every creature. The topic of the Cross of Christ becomes an essential and primary element of the Apostle's preaching:
... why did St Paul make precisely this, the word of the Cross, the fundamental core of his teaching? The answer is not difficult: the Cross reveals "the power of God" (cf. 1 Cor 1: 24), which is different from human power; indeed, it reveals his love: "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (ibid., v. 25). Centuries after Paul we see that in history it was the Cross that triumphed and not the wisdom that opposed it. The Crucified One is wisdom, for he truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women. God uses ways and means that seem to us at first sight to be merely weakness. The Crucified One reveals on the one hand man's frailty and on the other, the true power of God, that is the free gift of love: this totally gratuitous love is true wisdom. St Paul experienced this even in his flesh and tells us about it in various passages of his spiritual journey which have become precise reference points for every disciple of Jesus: "He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Cor 12: 9); and again "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor 1: 27). The Apostle identified so closely with Christ that in spite of being in the midst of so many trials, he too lived in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for his sins and for the sins of all (cf. Gal 1: 4; 2: 20). This autobiographical fact concerning the Apostle becomes paradigmatic for all of us.
St Paul gave a wonderful synthesis of the theology of the Cross in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (5: 14-21) where everything is enclosed between two fundamental affirmations: on the one hand Christ, whom God made to be sin for our sake (v. 21), he died for all (v. 14); and on the other, God reconciled us to himself without imputing our sins to us (vv. 18-20). It is from this "ministry of reconciliation" that every form of slavery is already redeemed (cf. 1 Cor 6: 20; 7: 23). Here it appears how important this is for our lives. We too must enter into this "ministry of reconciliation" that always implies relinquishing one's superiority and opting for the folly of love.
St Paul sacrificed his own life, devoting himself without reserve to the ministry of reconciliation, of the Cross, which is salvation for us all. And we too must be able to do this: may we be able to find our strength precisely in the humility of love and our wisdom in the weakness of renunciation, entering thereby into God's power. We must all model our lives on this true wisdom: we must not live for ourselves but must live in faith in that God of whom we can all say: "he loved me and gave himself for me".
Pope Francis on the Cross
The Readings for today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross provide a rich teaching on the Cross. Let’s look at five themes, each in turn.
I. The Pattern of the Cross – One of the stranger passages in the Old Testament is one describing a command Moses received from God to mount a bronze snake on a pole.
The people had grumbled against God and Moses for the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). They were sick of its bland quality even though it was the miracle food, the bread from Heaven that had sustained them in the desert. (Pay attention, Catholics who treat the Eucharist lightly or find it boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them, which caused many to die (Nm 21:6). The people then repented and, in order to bring healing to them, God commanded a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live (Nm 21:8).
No Graven Images?? Now remember, it was God who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth(Ex 20:4). Yet here He commands a graven (carved) image be made.
Why does God do this? That is covered in the next point.
II. The Palliative Quality of the Cross – And yet when Moses made it of bronze and showed it to the people, those who looked at it became well (Nm 21:9).
In a way it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “The people, in rejecting the Bread from Heaven have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed; let them fear of what the serpent can do depart.”
Jesus takes up the theme in today’s Gospel and fulfills it when He says, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14). It is almost as if to say, “Let the people face their sin and see the ugly reality that it is and what it does to me, to them, and to others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”
There is something about facing our sins, our shortcomings, our anxieties, and our fears. There is something about looking them in the face in order to find healing. One of the glories of the Catholic faith is that it has never hidden the Cross. We have never run from it. There have been brief times when, shamefully, we de-emphasized it. But throughout most of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly, and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to it and glory in it.
Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine that you were to walk into a church and instead of seeing a crucifix you saw Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around His neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying, and emblematic of the worse kind of suffering. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin, “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!) for they could think of nothing more horrible to compare it to. And this is the origin of the English word “excruciating.” Crucifixion is brutal—an awful, slow, ignoble, and humiliating death: ex cruce!
But there it is, front and center in just about every Catholic Church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. And we are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery, ridicule, rejection, and death. And the Lord and the Church say, “Look! Don’t turn away. Do not hide this. Look! Behold!” Face the crucifix and all it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears; confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst that the world and the devil can do, for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
III. The Paradox of the Cross – A paradox refers to something that is contrary to the common way of thinking, something that surprises or even perturbs us by its reversal of the usual standards. In a world dominated by power and its aggressive use, the humility and powerlessness of the Cross accomplishing anything but defeat both surprises and upsets the normal worldly order.
At the heart of today’s second reading is the declaration that Christ humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—death on the Cross. But far from ending His work, it exalted Him and brought Him victory. To the world this is absurdity, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom and power of God. Consider that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that. At the heart of Original Sin and every personal sin is the prideful notion that we know better than God. Satan’s fundamental flaw is his colossal pride; he considers himself equal to God. He is narcissistic, egotistical, and prideful.
But the solution to conquering pride is not to have greater pride, but rather to manifest great humility, as Jesus did. And while Satan disobeyed God, Jesus humbly obeyed His Father. He did not cling to His divine prerogatives, but rather laid them aside, taking up the form of a slave and being seen as a mere human being. It was thus that He humbled Himself and obeyed even unto the Cross. Jesus was seen as the lowest of human beings, accepting a death reserved for the worst of criminals and sinners though He himself was sinless and divine.
So astonishing is Jesus’ humility, that it literally undoes Satan’s pride and all of our collective pride. It is the great paradox of the Cross that humility conquers pride, that God’s “weakness” conquers human power and aggression, that love conquers hate, and that light dispels the darkness.
It is the great paradox of the Cross that makes a public spectacle of every human and worldly presumption.
IV. The Power of the Cross – The gospel today announces the great power of the cross: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Thus Jesus, the Son of Man, when He was lifted up from the earth called to the heart of every human person. And those who believe in him and look to him are saved from their sins and snatched from the hands of the devil. The power of the Cross is the power to save.
And not only are we saved from the effects of our sins, we are empowered to live a whole new life. For the text says that God does this that we might not perish, but that we might have eternal life. The word eternal does not refer simply to the length of life, but also to its fullness. And therefore, by the power of the Cross, we are given the gift to live a completely new life, transformed increasingly into the very holiness, freedom, joy, and blessedness of the very life of Christ. In dying with Him in baptism to this old life, we rise to the new life that He offers: a life increasingly set free from sin, a life transformed from vice to virtue, from sorrow to joy, from despair to hope, and from futility to meaningfulness and victory. Thus the power of the Cross is manifest as the power of the tree of life.
V. The Passion of the Cross – And why all this? Why this undeserved gift? In a word, love. “For God so loved the world…” Yes, God loves the world. Despite our rebellion, our unbelief, our scoffing, and our murderous hatred, God goes on loving us. He sent His Son to manifest His love and to obey Him within the capacity of His humanity. Cassian says that we are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Jesus loved His Father too much, and loves us too much to ever say no to Him. And the Father loves us too much to have ever withheld the gift of His Son from us, though Jesus is His only begotten Son, the greatest gift He could ever offer. And in His love, He does not withhold this gift, but offers Him.
Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all? How are you saved? God so loved the world. God so loved you. God is love. And God, who loves us, proclaims the truth to us and invites us to except His truth. He does not force His love upon us, but invites us and gives us every grace to turn and to come to Him. But why does He care? Why does He not simply force us to obey? God is love and love invites; it does not force. Love respects the will of the beloved and seeks only the free response of love in return.
The Cross— nothing is more provocative; nothing is more paradoxical; nothing is greater proof of God’s love for us and of His desire to do whatever it takes to procure our yes to His truth, His way, and His love. Run to the Cross and meet the Lord, who loves you more than you deserve and more than you can imagine. Run to Him now, because He loves you.
Another address of Pope Francis:
....the Gospel of today brings us to contemplate Jesus as he was presented before Pilate as the king of a kingdom that “is not of this world.” This doesn’t mean that Christ is the king of another world, but that he is a different kind of king; but he is king in this world.
We have here a contraposition of two types of logic. The worldly logic bases itself on ambition, competition, combat with the weapons of fear, of bribery, of the manipulation of consciences. On the other hand, the logic of the Gospel, that is, the logic of Jesus, is expressed in humility and gratitude. It is affirmed silently but effectively with the force of truth. The kingdoms of this world sometimes are sustained by arrogance, rivalries, oppression; the reign of Christ is a “kingdom of justice, of love and of peace.”
Jesus has revealed himself as a king. When? In the event of the cross. One who looks at the cross cannot help but see the surprising gratuitousness of love. But someone could say, “But Father, that was a failure!” It is precisely in the failure of sin that sin is a failure. In the failure of human ambitions, there is the triumph of the cross, there is the gratuitousness of love. In the failure of the cross, love is seen. And a love that is gratuitous, that Jesus gives us.
To speak of power and strength, for the Christian, means to make reference to the power of the cross, and the strength of Jesus’ love: a love that remains firm and complete, even when faced with rejection, and which is shown as the fulfillment of a life poured out in the total surrender of itself for the benefit of humanity. On Calvary, the passers-by and the leaders made fun of Jesus nailed to the cross and they challenged him: “Save yourself by coming down from the cross. Save yourself.”
But paradoxically the truth of Jesus is precisely that
[challenge] hurled at him with irony by his adversaries: “He can’t save himself!” If Jesus would have come down from the cross, he would have given in to the temptations of the prince of the world. Instead, he cannot save himself precisely so as to be able to save the others, because in fact he has given his life for us, for each one of us. To say “Jesus has given his life for the world” is true. But it is more beautiful to say, “Jesus has given his life for me.”
by Peter Kreeft
The problem of evil is the most serious problem in the world. It is also the one serious objection to the existence of God.
When Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote his great Summa Theologica, he could find only two objections to the existence of God, even though he tried to list at least three objections to every one of the thousands of theses he tried to prove in that great work. One of the two objections is the apparent ability of natural science to explain everything in our experience without God; and the other is the problem of evil.
More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief. And it's not just an intellectual objection. We feel it. We live it. That's why the Book of Job is so arresting.
The problem can be stated very simply: If God is so good, why is his world so bad? If an all-good, all-wise, all-loving, all-just, and all-powerful God is running the show, why does he seem to be doing such a miserable job of it? Why do bad things happen to good people?
The unbeliever who asks that question is usually feeling resentment toward and rebellion against God, not just lacking evidence for his existence. C. S. Lewis recalls that as an atheist he "did not believe God existed. I was also very angry with him for not existing. I was also angry with him for having created the world."
When you talk to such a person, remember that it is more like talking to a divorcée than to a skeptical scientist. The reason for unbelief is an unfaithful lover, not an inadequate hypothesis. The unbeliever's problem is not just a soft head but a hard heart. And the good apologist knows how to let the heart lead the head as well as vice versa.
There are four parts to the solution to the problem of evil.
Evil is not a thing
but a wrong choice.
First, evil is not a thing, an entity, a being. All beings are either the Creator or creatures created by the Creator. But every thing God created is good, according to Genesis. We naturally tend to picture evil as a thing—a black cloud, or a dangerous storm, or a grimacing face, or dirt. But these pictures mislead us. If God is the Creator of all things and evil is a thing, then God is the Creator of evil, and he is to blame for its existence. No, evil is not a thing but a wrong choice, or the damage done by a wrong choice. Evil is no more a positive thing than blindness is. But it is just as real. It is not a thing, but it is not an illusion.
The all-powerful God gave us
a share in his power
to choose freely.
Second, the origin of evil is not the Creator but the creature's freely choosing sin and selfishness. Take away all sin and selfishness and you would have heaven on earth. Even the remaining physical evils would no longer rankle and embitter us. Saints endure and even embrace suffering and death as lovers embrace heroic challenges. But they do not embrace sin.
Furthermore, the cause of physical evil is spiritual evil. The cause of suffering is sin. After Genesis tells the story of the good God creating a good world, it next answers the obvious question "Where did evil come from then?" by the story of the fall of mankind. How are we to understand this? How can spiritual evil (sin) cause physical evil (suffering and death)?
God is the source of all life and joy. Therefore, when the human soul rebels against God, it loses its life and joy. Now a human being is body as well as soul. We are single creatures, not double: we are not even body and soul as much as we are embodied soul, or ensouled body. So the body must share in the soul's inevitable punishment—a punishment as natural and unavoidable as broken bones from jumping off a cliff or a sick stomach from eating rotten food rather than a punishment as artificial and external as a grade for a course or a slap on the hands for taking the cookies.
Whether this consequence of sin was a physical change in the world or only a spiritual change in human consciousness—whether the "thorns and thistles" grew in the garden only after the fall or whether they were always there but were only felt as painful by the newly fallen consciousness—is another question. But in either case the connection between spiritual evil and physical evil has to be as close as the connection between the two things they affect, the human soul and the human body.
If the origin of evil is free will, and God is the origin of free will, isn't God then the origin of evil? Only as parents are the origin of the misdeeds their children commit by being the origin of their children. The all-powerful God gave us a share in his power to choose freely. Would we prefer he had not and had made us robots rather than human beings?
The Cross is God's part of the
practical solution to evil.
Our part is to repent, to
believe, and to work with
God in fighting evil
by the power of love.
A third part of the solution to the problem of evil is the most important part: how to resolve the problem in practice, not just in theory; in life, not just in thought. Although evil is a serious problem for thought (for it seems to disprove the existence of God), it is even more of a problem in life (for it is the real exclusion of God). But even if you think the solution in thought is obscure and uncertain, the solution in practice is as strong and clear as the sun: it is the Son. God's solution to the problem of evil is his Son Jesus Christ. The Father's love sent his Son to die for us to defeat the power of evil in human nature: that's the heart of the Christian story. We do not worship a deistic God, an absentee landlord who ignores his slum; we worship a garbageman God who came right down into our worst garbage to clean it up. How do we get God off the hook for allowing evil? God is not off the hook; God is the hook. That's the point of a crucifix.
The Cross is God's part of the practical solution to evil. Our part, according to the same Gospel, is to repent, to believe, and to work with God in fighting evil by the power of love. The King has invaded; we are finishing the mop-up operation.
Why do bad things happen
to good people?
The question makes three questionable assumptions.
Finally, what about the philosophical problem? It is not logically contradictory to say an all-powerful and all-loving God tolerates so much evil when he could eradicate it? Why do bad things happen to good people? The question makes three questionable assumptions.
First, who's to say we are good people? The question should be not "Why do bad things happen to good people?" but "Why do good things happen to bad people?" If the fairy godmother tells Cinderella that she can wear her magic gown until midnight, the question should be not "Why not after midnight?" but "Why did I get to wear it at all?" The question is not why the glass of water is half empty but why it is half full, for all goodness is gift. The best people are the ones who are most reluctant to call themselves good people. Sinners think they are saints, but saints know they are sinners. The best man who ever lived once said, "No one is good but God alone."
Second, who's to say suffering is all bad? Life without it would produce spoiled brats and tyrants, not joyful saints. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says simply, "The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?" Suffering can work for the greater good of wisdom. It is not true that all things are good, but it is true that "all things work together for good to those who love God."
Third, who's to say we have to know all God's reasons? Who ever promised us all the answers? Animals can't understand much about us; why should we be able to understand everything about God? The obvious point of the Book of Job, the world's greatest exploration of the problem of evil, is that we just don't know what God is up to. What a hard lesson to learn: Lesson One, that we are ignorant, that we are infants! No wonder Socrates was declared by the Delphic Oracle to be the wisest man in the world. He interpreted that declaration to mean that he alone knew that he did not have wisdom, and that was true wisdom for man.
A child on the tenth story of a burning building cannot see the firefighters with their safety net on the street. They call up, "Jump! We'll catch you. Trust us." The child objects, "But I can't see you." The firefighter replies, "That's all right. I can see you." We are like that child, evil is like the fire, our ignorance is like the smoke, God is like the firefighter, and Christ is like the safety net. If there are situations like this where we must trust even fallible human beings with our lives, where we must trust what we hear, not what we see, then it is reasonable that we must trust the infallible, all-seeing God when we hear from his word but do not see from our reason or experience. We cannot know all God's reasons, but we can know why we cannot know.
Hear the YouTube audio on Good and Evil
God has let us know a lot. He has lifted the curtain on the problem of evil with Christ. There, the greatest evil that ever happened, both the greatest spiritual evil and the greatest physical evil, both the greatest sin (deicide) and the greatest suffering (perfect love hated and crucified), is revealed as his wise and loving plan to bring about the greatest good, the salvation of the world from sin and suffering eternally. There, the greatest injustice of all time is integrated into the plan of salvation that Saint Paul calls "the righteousness (justice) of God". Love finds a way. Love is very tricky. But love needs to be trusted.
The worst aspect of the problem of evil is eternal evil, hell. Does hell not contradict a loving and omnipotent God? No, for hell is the consequence of free will. We freely choose hell for ourselves; God does not cast anyone into hell against his will. If a creature is really free to say yes or no to the Creator's offer of love and spiritual marriage, then it must be possible for the creature to say no. And that is what hell is, essentially. Free will, in turn, was created out of God's love. Therefore hell is a result of God's love. Everything is.
No sane person wants hell to exist. No sane person wants evil to exist. But hell is just evil eternalized. If there is evil and if there is eternity, there can be hell. If it is intellectually dishonest to disbelieve in evil just because it is shocking and uncomfortable, it is the same with hell. Reality has hard corners, surprises, and terrible dangers in it. We desperately need a true road map, not nice feelings, if we are to get home. It is true, as people often say, that "hell just feels unreal, impossible." Yes. So does Auschwitz. So does Calvary.
THE CRIB LEADS TO THE CROSS (OR, THE FATHERS ON THE INCARNATION AND PASSION)
The Theotokos of the Passion
"Our Lady of Perpetual Succour"
At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God. For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.
Mysterium paschaleCatholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.
Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:
…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)
East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.
Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:
The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.
The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.
Gregory of Nyssa—
If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.
To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.
In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.
The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.
Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)
Manger: The Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5), and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)
As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.
Soli Deo Gloria
Fr John Behr: The Church in Via
Paper delivered at the Plenary Session of the Conference on Eschatology held by the Theological Commission of the Moscow Patriarchate, Danielovsky Monastery, Nov 14-17, 2005.Christ as the “Coming One”
In a very important sense, Christian theology is always about eschatology and the content of eschatology is already given. This is somewhat obscured by the language we use of a “first coming” and a “second coming,” as if they were referring two distinct things: the first regarding the past – what happened two thousand years ago; and the second regarding what will happen at some unknown point in the future – an eschatological drama with a different content yet to be unfolded. But Christian theology does not divide up that easily: what the apostles and evangelists proclaim about Christ does not simply lie in the past, merely a matter of history; and our discussion about what is to come is not uninformed by what is given in Christ. Even for the evangelists, who proclaimed Christ’s coming, he remains, because he is, “the coming one”: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?” (Mat 11.3).
This description of Christ, as “the coming one,” is of course grounded in the Old Testament expectation of the coming Messiah, the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord (Ps 117.26 LXX; Mt 21.9; Jn 12.13). But it also reflects the manner in which the disciples, in the first three Gospels, come to know who Jesus is. Apart from the confession of Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi (Mat 16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” a confession that Peter did not really understand, as he then attempted to prevent Christ from going to Jerusalem to suffer (and so gets called “Satan”) – apart from this episode, the disciples are remarkably slow in coming to that know Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Whatever the disciples heard about Jesus’ birth from his mother, or about his baptism from others, whatever divine teachings they themselves heard from his lips or miracles they saw him doing with their own eyes, even seeing him transfigured on the mountain in glory – they still abandoned him at the time of the Passion (in the Synoptics; the Gospel of John is different, a difference to which I will return) and Peter even denied him: “I do not know this man,” he said three times (Mat 26.70 etc.). Neither for that matter did the empty tomb persuade them, nor even the resurrectional appearances: when he appears, they didn’t recognize him, but instead told him about the tomb having been found empty (Lk 24.22-4)!
Only when the crucified and risen Christ opened the scriptures, to show how it was necessary for him to have gone to his Passion to enter his glory, only then did the disciples’ hearts begin to burn, so that they were prepared to recognize him in the breaking of bread. But once he is recognized, the crucified and risen Lord disappears from their sight (Lk 24.31). At the very moment that the disciples finally encounter Christ knowingly, he passes out of their sight! We are left in anticipation of his coming; the one of whom we previously had no comprehension, appears and disappears, creating in us a desire for his coming. And so, as the apostle Paul puts it, we now “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead,” responding to “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3.13-4), knowing that our “citizenship” is not here on earth, but “in heaven,” from which “we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3.20-21). The “first coming,” such as it is, cannot be easily separated from the “second coming.”
The encounter with Christ is thus always eschatological and is itself the content of the eschaton. It is spoken of in apocalyptic terms: the crucified and risen Christ, who opens the books of the Scriptures to show how they all spoke of the necessity of his having suffered before entering his glory (Lk 24.27), is the slain Lamb who alone is able to open the scroll (Rev 5), so that we can now see how all these things were written “for our instruction – for us, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10.11). Having the Scriptures opened to them in this way, the apostles and evangelists used the language of Scripture to proclaim the coming one, the one who was crucified “in the last days” and who, likewise, was born “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal 4.4) – again, an eschatological event, with the account of his birth being grounded in the account of his Passion (“to the tomb corresponds the womb,” as Augustine put it [DT 4.2.9], a point made so clear in the iconography for the feast of the Nativity). The crucified and risen Christ, proclaimed in this way by the apostles “in accordance with Scripture,” is thus the starting-point and end-point of theological reflection – he is the Alpha and the Omega (Rev 1.8); he is the one by whom all things are created, and the end towards which all things tend, being recapitulated in him as the head of all things, and this, indeed, is the plan of God from all eternity (Eph 1.9-10).
Yet this eternal plan is known only at the end: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was made manifest at the end of time for your sake” (1 Pet 1.20). The beginning and the end of all things not only coincide in Christ and as Christ, but, as St Irenaeus puts it, he is the beginning who appears at the end (Against the Heresies [= AH] 1.10.3). Christ is revealed, in this way, at the end, and so we, in the present, are still in the process of “learning Christ,” as the apostle Paul puts it (Eph 4.20). We look back to the last image that we have of Christ in this world, his cross and Passion, as preached by the apostles “in accordance with Scripture,” yet stretch forward to encounter the eschatological Lord.
The Birth of Christ and the Motherhood of the Church
As we explore further how the apostles, evangelists and early Fathers spoke about the encounter with the always-coming Christ – especially in terms of his birth – we will again find the unity of the “first” and “second” comings already noted. And we will also see the importance of the Church as the Mother or Virgin Mother, the matrix (or “womb”) in and through whom the people called by God are born again to be the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit – so making the eschatological Lord present.
The apostle Paul who proclaims, as we have already heard, that the Son of God was born from a woman “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal 4.4) – an eschatological event – also announces, a few verses later, that by the proclamation of the Gospel, he is himself “in travail until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4.19), in those, that is, as he puts it elsewhere, whom he (though this time as a father) has “begotten through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4.15). He continues by explaining how this is so, applying the words of Isaiah to Sarah, in an allegory in which she represents the Jerusalem above, our free mother: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord” (Gal 4.27; Is 54.1). Although modern scriptural scholarship would separate this verse, as a distinct oracle, from what it identifies as the fourth hymn of the suffering servant (Is 52.13-53.12), they are united in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church: the only time that we read Isaiah’s words about the one who is bruised for our iniquities and pours out his soul unto death, on Vespers on Holy Friday, we conclude with the joyful proclamation that the barren one will give birth. Again, the Passion of Christ is the basis for how we speak of the birth of Christ, and this birth cannot be separated from his birth in those who now have the heavenly Jerusalem as their mother – the barren Virgin who, as a result of the Passion of Christ, becomes a Virgin Mother. This Pauline theme of the birth of Christ in those who receive the Gospel, is also eschatological in its orientation: it is only brought to completion when the coming Christ arrives: as already noted, Paul speaks of us waiting for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, then adds “who will change [NB – future] our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3.20).
John the theologian also affirms that “when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3.2). And in the Passion of Christ, as described by John, we can see the themes of motherhood and sonship developed further. Here, the Passion is again the moment of revelation: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I AM” (Jn 8.28), and it is described in terms we usually associate with the second coming: “Now is the judgment of the world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 1.31-2). But in the Passion, in this the “spiritual Gospel,” Christ is not abandoned, as he is in the Synoptics. Instead we have the scene usually depicted in iconography, with his mother and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the cross (together with his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene, though in iconography these others usually recede into the background if there at all). And on the cross Christ does not cry out, as in the other Gospels, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27.46; Mk 15.34; cf. Ps 22.1), but instead addresses his mother and the beloved disciple: “woman behold your son,” and to the disciple “behold your mother” (Jn 19.26). While the beloved disciple is traditionally identified with the evangelist himself, this is not actually an identification made by the Gospel; the only identification made here is that the one who stands by the cross of Christ and is not ashamed of him is the beloved disciple. Moreover, Christ does not say to his mother, “Woman behold another son for you in my place,” but simply “behold your son”: the faithful disciple standing by the cross becomes identified with Christ – the son of Christ’s own mother – putting on the identity of Christ, as Christians do in baptism, so that the barren one now indeed has many children, as we saw Isaiah announce.
Given all of this Scriptural reflection and imagery, regarding the birth of Christ, the coming eschatological Lord, in those who receive the Gospel, putting on the identity of Christ by becoming sons of the previously barren Woman, it is not surprising that Christians have, from the beginning, spoken of the Church as their Mother or Virgin Mother, in and through whom they put on the identity of Christ. This is done, for instance, in a very eloquent manner by The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, which describes in graphic detail the sufferings of the Christians of Gaul during the persecutions around the year AD 177 (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History [=EH] 5.1-2). During the first round in the arena, some of the Christians “appeared to be unprepared and untrained, as yet weak and unable to endure such a great conflict.” About ten of these, the letter says, proved to be “stillborn” or “miscarried,” causing great sorrow to the others and weakening the resolve of those yet to undergo their torture (EH 5.1.11). However, these stillborn Christians were encouraged through the zeal of the others, especially the slave girl Blandina, the heroine of the story, who was hung on a stake to be devoured by the wild beasts, but who appeared to the other Christians as the embodiment of Christ: “in their agony they saw with their outward eyes in the person of their sister the One who was crucified for them” (EH 5.1.41). After describing her suffering, the letter continues:
“Through their continued life the dead were made alive, and the witnesses (martyrs) showed favor to those who had failed to witness. And there was great joy for the Virgin Mother in receiving back alive those who she had miscarried as dead. For through them the majority of those who had denied were again brought to birth and again conceived and again brought to life and learned to confess; and now living and strengthened, they went to the judgment seat.” (EH 5.1.45-6)
The Christians who turned away from making their confession are simply dead; their lack of preparation has meant that they are stillborn children of the Virgin Mother, the Church. But strengthened by the witness of others, they also were able to go to their death, and so the Virgin Mother received them back alive – finally giving birth to living children of God.
Another early text, On Christ and the Antichrist by Hippolytus, uses the imagery of the Church as a Virgin giving birth as a result of the Passion, connecting it directly to the Incarnation and the birth of Christ:
“The Word of God, being fleshless, put on the holy flesh from the holy Virgin, as a bridegroom a garment, having woven it for himself in the sufferings of the cross, so that having mixed our mortal body with his own power, and having mingled the corruptible into the incorruptible, and the weak with the strong, he might save perishing man.” (On Christ and the Antichrist 4)
He continues with an extended image of loom, of which the web-beam is “the passion of the Lord upon the cross,” the warp is the power of the Holy Spirit, the woof is the holy flesh woven by the Spirit, the rods are the Word, and the workers are the patriarchs and prophets “who weave the fair, long, perfect tunic for Christ.” The flesh of the Word, received from the Virgin and “woven in the sufferings of the cross,” is woven by the patriarchs and prophets, whose actions and words proclaim the manner in which the Word became present and manifest. It is in the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the one who died on the cross, interpreted and understood in the matrix, the womb, of Scripture, that the Word receives flesh from the virgin. The virgin in this case, Hippolytus later affirms following Revelation 12, is the Church, who will never cease “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the world,” while the male child she bears is Christ, God and man, announced by the prophets, “whom the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations” (... on aei tikousa h ekklesia didaskei panta ta ethne. Antichrist 61). In this world the Church, a Virgin Mother, is always in via, a journey which is also a process of child-birth, bearing Christ, the coming Lord, in the children she now nurtures in her womb, till they reach the point exemplified by the apostle Paul, who can say: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20), and can also call upon God as “abba, Father” (Gal 4.6), a point which arrives in our death in confession of Christ, a birth into new life.
Bearing Witness and Becoming Human
If we return to the Passion of Christ as described in the Gospel of John, there is one further eschatological feature worth noting: after saying “I thirst,” “to fulfill the scripture,” receiving a sponge of vinegar (Jn 19.28-9; cf. Ps 69.21), Christ simply says “it is finished” or “it is fulfilled,” brought to completion or perfection (Jn 19.30): the work of God has been completed, and the Lord then rests from his works. The period of Christ’s repose in the tomb, according to the hymnography for Holy Saturday, is the blessed Sabbath itself. The work of God spoken of in Genesis, creating “the human being (anthro¯pos) in our image and likeness” (Gen 1.26-27), is completed here: as Pilate said a few verses earlier, “Behold, the man (anthro¯pos)” (Jn 19.5). The work of God is complete, and the Lord of creation now rests from his work in the tomb on the blessed Sabbath. By himself undergoing the Passion as a man, Jesus Christ, as Son of God and himself God, fashions us into the image and likeness of God, the image of God that he himself is (Col 1.15).
That the crucified and risen Christ, the eschatological Lord to whose coming we strive, is the first true human being, and that we ourselves only become fully human in his stature, is a point made by many Christian writers across the centuries. Already with the apostle Paul, the preaching of the gospel is to continue, he says, building up the Church, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4.13). St Ignatius of Antioch, more dramatically, implores the Christians at Rome not to interfere with his coming martyrdom:
I seek him who died for our sake. I desire him who rose for us. The pains of birth are upon me. Suffer me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. … Suffer me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being (anthro¯pos). Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God. (Romans 6)
Undergoing death in witness to Christ, the “perfect human being” (Smryneans 4.2) or the “new human being” (Ephesians 20.1), is a birth into a new life, for St Ignatius, to emerge as Christ himself, a fully human being. Again beseeching the Romans to keep silence rather than intercede on his behalf, he asserts “if you are silent concerning me, I am a word of God; but if you love my flesh, I shall be only a cry”(Romans 2.1). By undergoing the same martyr’s death as Christ, the suffering God, he hopes to attain to the true light, to true humanity after the stature of Christ, and so to be a word of God, rather than only an inarticulate cry. When St Irenaeus asserts that “the glory of God is a living human being” (AH 4.20.7), he means specifically the martyr – the one who no longer lives by the strength of this world, but by the strength of the Spirit (cf. AH 5.9.2). Just as the encounter with the coming Christ coincides with his disappearance from sight, so also the manifestation of a living human being is the point at which they depart from this world to be with God.
Baptism and Eucharist
This eschatological orientation of our present lives as Christians– directed towards the coming Christ, taking up our cross daily, ultimately to die in a good confession of Christ, so that we are born again into the fullness of life, as fully human beings, putting on the identity of Christ himself – all of this offers a very comprehensive and profound vision of the Church in via, as the Virgin Mother in and through whom Christ is born, and born in us, and also of baptism and the eucharist as the preliminary entry into and nourishment for such life. Much Orthodox ecclesiology of the past century has focused on the Church as being the place where the eucharist, the messianic banquet, is celebrated, or rather the Church as being constituted by the celebration of this sacrament of the kingdom (“where the eucharist is, there is the Church” as Zizioulas paraphrases Afanasiev’s formula, which is in fact more complex: “where there is a eucharist assembly, there Christ abides, and there is the Church of God in Christ” [Una Sancta (1963), 495; Being as Communion, 24). While this “eucharistic ecclesiology” may have had various positive effects (the so-called “liturgical renewal”), it has also had a deleterious effect, in that it tends to treat baptism as being but a step into the Church, a gateway which once passed through we can leave behind, now being able to receive the sacrament of the eucharist.
It is important to note the tenses that the apostle Paul uses in his words on baptism in Romans 6: if we have died with Christ in baptism, we shall rise with him (Rom 6.3-5). Although baptism is a specific, sacramental event, in which we sacramentally die to the world, we are still living in this world and still have sin and death working in us – and will continue to do so until our actual death, in witness to Christ, at which point we will be born again into the newness of life, putting on, fully, the identity of Christ and becoming a full human being. And so, until that point, we must preserve our state of being baptized: “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. … So you must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.8, 11). In other words, baptism is not simply a stepping stone to membership of the Church. Rather the paschal dimension of baptism characterizes the totality of the Christian life, shaping and informing every aspect of it, until we are finally raised in Christ. The mode of becoming a Christian, through conversion and instruction, is the mode of remaining a Christian, all the while learning to confess Christ more fully and so put on his identity more perfectly.
The eucharist is, likewise, intimately connected to the paschal dimensions of our baptismal lives, in such a way that we can, in turn, see our dying to this world and birth to the next in eucharistic terms. When writing to the Romans, St Ignatius describes himself as being the “wheat of God, ground by the teeth of wild beasts,” so that he “may be found to be the pure bread of Christ” (Romans 4.1) – a clear eucharistic allusion. St Irenaeus develops this imagery more fully:
Just as the wood of the vine, planted in the earth, bore fruit in its own time, and the grain of wheat, falling into the earth and being decomposed, was raised up by the Spirit of God who sustains all, then, by wisdom, they come to the use of humans, and receiving the Word of God, become eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ; in the same way, our bodies, nourished by it, having been placed in the earth and decomposing in it, shall rise in their time, when the Word of God bestows on them the resurrection to the glory of God the Father, who secures immortality for the mortal and bountifully bestows incorruptibility on the corruptible (AH 5.2.3)
By receiving the Eucharist, as the wheat and the vine receive the fecundity of the Spirit, we are prepared, as we also make the fruits into the bread and wine, for the resurrection effected by the Word, at which point, just as the bread and wine receive the Word and so become the Body and Blood of Christ, the eucharist, so also our bodies will receive immortality and incorruptibility from the Father. The paschal mystery that each baptized Christian enters by baptism is completed in their resurrection, celebrated as the eucharist of the Father.
By exploring how it is that we speak about the “coming” of Christ, I hope to have shown that it is not something that we can consign to history or an indefinite point in the future, but that this is an eschatological reality always breaking in upon us now, as we learn to die to ourselves and this world, with Christ being born in us, as we are reborn in the Virgin Mother, the Church, who sojourns in this world as in a desert (cf. Rev 5.6).
Theologians Reading the Gospels: John Behr - The Passion of Jesus as the Key to Reading Scripture
from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.
A Lenten Meditation
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the Cross.” In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. —John Stott
Calvary is judo. The enemy’s own power is used to defeat him. Satan’s craftily orchestrated plot, rolled along according to plan by his agents Judas, Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, culminated in the death of God. And this very event, Satan’s conclusion, was God’s premise. Satan’s end was God’s means. God won Satan’s captives – us – back to himself by freely dying in our place.
It is, of course, the most familiar, the most often-told story in the world. Yet it is also the strangest, and it has never lost its strangeness, its awe, and will not even in eternity, where angels tremble to gaze at things we yawn at. And however strange, it is the only key that fits the lock of our tortured lives and needs. We needed a surgeon, he came and reached into our wounds with bloody hands. He didn’t give us a placebo or a pill or good advice. He gave us himself.
He came. He entered space and time and suffering. He came, like a lover. He did the most important thing and he gave the most important gift: himself. It is a lover’s gift. Out of our tears, our waiting, our darkness, our agonized aloneness, out of our weeping and wondering, out of our cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” he came, all the way, right into that cry.
He sits beside us in the lowest places of our lives, like water. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected? Do people despise us not for our evil but for our good, or attempted good? He was “despised and rejected of men.” Do we weep? Is grief our familiar spirit, our horrifyingly familiar ghost? Do we ever say, “Oh, no, not again! I can’t take it any more!”? Do people misunderstand us, turn away from us? They hid their faces from him as from an outcast, a leper. Is our love betrayed? Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was betrayed by the ones he loved. “He came unto his own and his own received him not.”
Does it seem sometimes as if life has passed us by or cast us out, as if we are sinking into uselessness and oblivion? He sinks with us. He too is passed over by the world. His way of suffering love is rejected, his own followers often the most guilty of all; they have made his name a scandal, especially among his own chosen people. What Jew finds the road to him free from the broken weapons of bloody prejudice? We have made it nearly impossible for his own people to love him, to see him as he is, free from the smoke of battle and holocaust.
How does he look upon us now? With continual sorrow, but never with scorn. We add to his wounds. There are two thousand nails in his cross. We, his beloved and longed for and passionately desired, are constantly cold and correct and distant to him. And still he keeps brooding over the world like a hen over an egg, like a mother who has had all of her beloved children turn against her. “Could a mother desert her young? Even so I could not desert you.” He sits beside us not only in our sufferings but even in our sins. He does not turn his face from us, however much we turn our face from him.
Does he descend into all our hells? Yes. In the unforgettable line of Corrie ten Boom from the depths of a Nazi death camp, “No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.” Does he descend into violence? Yes, by suffering it and leaving us the solution that to this day only a few brave souls have dared to try, the most notable in our memory not even a Christian but a Hindu. Does he descend into insanity? Yes, into that darkness too. Even into the insanity of suicide? Can he be there too? Yes, he can. “Even the darkness is not dark to him.” He finds or makes light even there, in the darkness of the mind – though perhaps not until the next world, until death’s release.
Love is why he came. It’s all love. The buzzing flies around the cross, the stroke of the Roman hammer as the nails tear into his screamingly soft flesh, the infinitely harder stroke of his own people’s hammering hatred, hammering at his heart – why? For love. God is love, as the sun is fire and light, and he can no more stop loving than the sun can stop shining.
Henceforth, when we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or on our hearts, we can know – we must know – that he is here with us, taking our blows. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but he makes them his. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or his tear-filled ones? He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished. And he shows us that we can henceforth use our very brokenness as nourishment for those we love. Since we are his body, we too are the bread that is broken for others. Our very failures help heal other lives; our very tears help wipe away tears; our being hated helps those we love. When those we love hang up on us, he keeps the lines open.
God’s answer to the problem of suffering not only really happened two thousand years ago, but it is still happening in our own lives. The solution to our suffering is our suffering! All our suffering can become part of his work, the greatest work ever done, the work of salvation, of helping to win for those we love eternal joy.
Detail from a painting by Jan van Hemessen showing Christ carrying his cross while onlookers mock and make faces at him.
Jan van Hemessen, Christ Carrying The Cross (detail)
fr Aidan Nichols is the Prior of the Priory of St Michael the Archangel in Cambridge. He is also a well-known and prolific writer and theologian. email@example.com
The Blood That Has Been Shed
Palm Sunday. fr Aidan reflects on how we are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.
The vestments of the celebrants today are blood-red, because at the beginning of Holy Week we anticipate the week’s end. The One who enters Jerusalem today is already, in the words of Keats, a ‘murdered man’. There was no earthly hope for him since his enemies had made up their minds: judicial murder would be his end. And for the judicial murder the instrument at hand would not be a clean or antiseptic one like the electric chair is at any rate supposed to be. The preference of the Roman authorities for crucifixion was even more sanguineous than the Jewish method of stoning. And so it’s blood we’re thinking of already. Soon the red liquid will be flowing. You may say, so what? There’s so much blood shed in the world: in road accidents, murders, natural disasters, political atrocities. Yes, but this blood is different.
This is redemptive blood. It is the blood Marlowe’s Faust saw streaming through the firmament, and St Catherine of Siena perceived as soaking the Church in its flow. It is royal blood, the blood of the Messiah, to be shed in a self-giving whose effects are so wonderful that this Sacrifice is a triumph, and not a defeat. This is the life-blood offered up to the Father as the vehicle for atoning love which meets, and more than meets, the demand of the infinitely Holy One for redress for evil. It ‘more than meets’ that demand since it makes the human race not only atoned for but endlessly glorious. The red we wear today is not just the red of blood. It is also the red of regal triumph.
The place where it all happened matters. The location is not without significance – not by any manner of means. Today the Lord sought to enter his own city, Zion, the holy city. It was the city of the Most High God, where, for the ancient Hebrews, he had placed his Name. In other words, it was the city whose vocation was to be the dwelling-place on earth of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Divinity Israel worshipped. It was a city that belonged to Jesus Christ by right – not only owing to the fact that he was Israel’s true Messiah , but because of the way in which he was so: a way unthought of even by the most farseeing of the prophets: he was incarnate God and so in his divine-human person he is the measure of all truth, all goodness, all beauty whatsoever. The relationship between God and the world finds its highest embodiment in his person.
But the entry into the city was ill-omened, and that the Old Testament did understand, Scripture knew of cities that kept their gates firmly closed, to their loss. Jericho closed its doors against Joshua and ensured it would miss out on the creative moment of divine history sweeping up through the fertile Crescent with the tribes of Israel escaping from Egypt. Despite this morning’s hosannas, later this week Jerusalem will close its doors on Jesus. It will not simply bar him, as Jericho barred Joshua. It will have him crucified outside the gate. That is the point Mrs Alexander is making in the children’s hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away,/ Without a city wall’. It is not intended as a bucolic image of a pretty landscape. It is an expression in language suited to children of closure on the offer of salvation.
We know parallels to such closure in our own lives. We can close the door of our personality, snap it shut, when to open it would have meant healing for ourselves and others. On Good Friday the Saviour will do the opposite to what Jericho and Jerusalem did. He will open his arms as wide as they can go, so that all the world may march in through the fissure in his side, into the spacious welcome of his Sacred Heart. This is where so many of the mystical saints of the Latin Church have sought to locate themselves, and if we find the language rather gruesome we should think again. Its message runs, to cite another modern (well, fairly modern) hymn, ‘There is plentiful redemption/ In the blood that has been shed;/ There is joy for all the members/ In the sorrows of the Head’.
fr Aidan Nichols is the Prior of the Priory of St Michael the Archangel in Cambridge. He is also a well-known and prolific writer and theologian. firstname.lastname@example.org
Lent and Holy Week
St Cecilia's Abbey, Ryde