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Ecumenical Service, Wednesday of Holy Week: The Crisis of the Cross

The theme I have chosen for our worship this evening is the crisis of the Cross. By this I mean three different but related things. Firstly, the Cross is the occasion of the greatest crisis in history. Secondly and consequently, the Cross puts humanity in crisis. Thirdly, the Cross is itself in crisis.


But what is a crisis? In the Bible, the term can signify many different things. If we look at them all together, though, we can easily see they are related to each other. As a noun, crisis can mean a separation between two things which then oppose each other. It can also mean a choice between two opposing things. As a verb, it can mean to judge or decide between right or wrong. Associated with that, it can have the sense of a sentence of condemnation or of acquittal.


Bringing all this together, crisis, as used in the Scriptures, describes the situation of someone who must take a major decision when faced with a serious truth or event. The result of the decision he takes is that he puts himself in a position of right or wrong with regard to that truth or event. There then follows a judgment of condemnation or salvation.


So, what does it mean to say that the Cross is the occasion of the greatest crisis in history? The Cross of Christ is the most serious event of human history because it reveals the truth of all history. It encapsulates the truth about man, about God, about creation and about redemption. Its relevance is universal because by it the salvation of all of humanity is achieved. In a document of the Second Vatican Council, the universal offer of salvation through the Cross is described in this way: “since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with (the) paschal mystery” (“Gaudium et Spes”, n.22). This means that all human beings of all times and places will be offered the grace of the Cross in whatever way the Providence of God sees fit.


The Cross reveals the inevitable outcome of man’s rejection of God. It is God’s way of revealing the final consequence of sin. It shows that, without God, man disintegrates into suffering and death, into being violently rejected and abandoned. At the same time, though, the Cross is the fruit of God’s saving and merciful love for humanity in its rejection of him. You could say that it is God’s acceptance of man’s rejection of him. It is God’s overcoming of that rejection. It is the definitive victory of good over evil, of grace over sin, of peace over violence and of communion over abandonment. Every human being, therefore, will sooner or later, in one way or the other, come face to face with the event and truth of the Cross and have to recognize in it the crisis point of his own personal history. And because this is true for all human beings, the Cross is literally the crux of all human history.


Human freedom is made or broken at the foot of the Cross. It faces us all with the crisis of the most important decision of our existence. That decision is whether or not I accept that the Cross does indeed reveal the truth about myself and God, and hence whether or not I accept that the Cross reveals the truth about all men and God. If I accept that revelation, then the Cross becomes the key to interpret my own personal life, its major decisions, its values, its meaning. As the Cross revealed the I AM of God, so it reveals the I am of every person. And what that means is that I accept that God has already accepted all my rejections of him, great or small, past, present or future. In other words, I accept that God’s love conquers sin in me, his forgiveness wipes sin out and away from me. I accept that God’s compassionate majesty is always powerful, beyond any capacity I have to fail. It also means that I accept that the divine love as revealed in Jesus crucified is the power of any good I do; it is the foundation of my hope for final victory. It releases me from any need or compulsion to demean or disrespect myself. It is the end of low self-esteem and the beginning of humble self-love; it dispels the need for fear of any kind because those crucified arms are always holding me fast and secure.


When I accept the Cross as the perfect revelation of God’s truth and of my own truth, then I have put myself in the situation of God’s salvation, justice and right. This was Peter’s experience after his denials. The look which Christ gave him as the cock crew was the same look that Christ gave the good thief on the Cross, or the woman taken in adultery or the woman at the well. It was the look that said: my love for you is greater than your denials of me. Don’t be lost in your denials, but be found in my mercy. In other words, my acceptance of you outweighs and transcends your rejection of me, your fear, your disgust with your fickle-hearted self. Look to me crucified and you will, even today, be with me in paradise. Look away from me, and you will hang from a tree in self-loathing and self-rejection.


Judas, alas, did not, did not want to – or was it could not? – see the Cross as revealing either the truth of the Jesus he had betrayed or the truth of the self he had become. The chilling reality of suicide brings sharply to our eyes the consequences of original sin, not only for one individual but for humanity. Certainly, of course, we can never know the full subjective pain or tragedy that can lead someone to this final act of self-rejection, and so we must exercise great caution in passing any judgment. At the same time, when it comes to the objective fate of humanity, then without the Cross, it can only be self-destruction. No self-invented tower of Babel or self-proclaimed divinity will work. As God warned Adam and Eve, “On the day you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will die.”


This is why the ever so polite and subtle, yet firm, rejection of the crucified Christ witnessed in many quarters today gives us as believing Christians strong motivation once more to lift high the Cross. In many parts of our western world, whose very flourishing as Christendom and civilization was rooted in the Cross of the Saviour, the Cross is in crisis. It is no longer so much the crisis of open acceptance or open rejection which we witness, but indifference, apathy and at best an indignant tolerance of the Cross’s presence behind closed doors. We could even say that the Cross is in crisis only because in many respects the man and woman of today are not in crisis, that is, they see no crisis, they see no fundamental choice to be made between salvation and perdition. Many see only a bland horizon of grey; they are blinded to the ultimate good and the ultimate evil. Many, too many, see only what they construct with their own minds and hands. For them, there is no sin. There is no moral life. There is only self-will, self-advancement and self-reinvention. Any talk or relevance of God is acceptable only if it blesses what man says. The Word of God has been replaced by the Word of Man. The Cross is reduced to my pain at not getting my way.


In this holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar, we need once more the passion of St. Paul to boast only of the Cross of Jesus Christ, to seek to reproduce the pattern of Christ’s death that we might share in his resurrection. We need perhaps the audacity to hold up to our generation in the West the Cross of Jesus using Paul’s words of recrimination against the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”


Through us, and through the power of the Spirit, may the Crucified Lord Himself bring the scandal and the crisis of his saving Cross back into the spiritual perception of our anaesthetized Christian civilization. May all of us once again experience the blessed crisis of the Cross and choose the truth and love of the Crucified for our own sakes and for that of our brethren.