13 January 2023
Having spent a few years working in hospitals, I have experienced dealing with death in various ways: making sense of it when it came unexpectedly, withholding heroic measures when it was imminent, and being frustrated and angry when it could have been avoided, as in the case of those without access to basic health care.
These however did not help me to grapple with the mystery of the Cross for I have always found it difficult to pray about the Lord’s passion and death.
Maybe it has something to do with how I’ve managed to stay objective and “professional” about the suffering of patients. But I suspect that it is largely because attempts to make sense of how and why Jesus had to die can confuse the way I perceive God and relate with Him.
For instance, what does it mean for Jesus to pay ransom for our sins? If we are not careful, this suggests to the faithful that God is vindictive, and the violence Jesus suffers is fitting payment for all the sins of humanity. We find a similar way of thinking today when we believe that COVID-19 is God’s way of warning us to mend our ways. The problem is that this image of God as angry (and cruel!) contradicts how Jesus described the Father— as merciful and loving.
Next, what does it mean for Jesus to die on the cross out of obedience to the Father’s will? Does this imply that it was the Father’s plan from the very beginning for Jesus to die a gruesome death? You might even ask if the Son was aware that this was part of the deal at the moment of Incarnation! In any case, doesn’t this make the Father an accomplice in Jesus’ unjust conviction, sentencing, and execution? And what of Judas— didn’t he have a choice?
The efforts to make sense of the Cross of Christ are as old as Theology and we can find some consolation that these questions are not ours alone, nor are the potential pitfalls that result from our theologizing. Over the years, I’ve held on to a Commonweal article written by Joseph Komonchak entitled “The Violence of the Cross.” According to him, what many have failed to realize is that beyond the rigorous logic of their theories of redemption is Mystery. Mystery encompasses our inability to understand God and the very nature of evil in the cosmos. There are many unknowns in the equation (most notably, why God “permits” bad things to happen to good people). What we do know is this: that Jesus was born into this sinful world, encountered its evils, and willingly suffered and died because of them, for our sake.
Komonchak quotes from 1 Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he trusted him who judges justly.” In other words, Christ responded to sin and evil not by fighting back or escaping, but with love. He realized that what He did will eventually cause His death, but that did not stop Him from befriending the outcasts, speaking truth to power, and loving even the enemy. This is how He remained faithful to His mission. He joined us in our mess and pulled us out of it by transforming it with His love. And this, in a mysterious way, is how He saved us.
Thus, when we reflect on the Cross of Christ, we try to understand it from the point of view of God’s great love for all humanity. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) That has not changed; the Cross will always stand for radical, self-emptying, and salvific love. Because of this, profound gratitude, not guilt, not fear, is the most meaningful way to reflect on the Lord’s passion.
As we meditate on this, we can ask ourselves whether we still believe that God’s love can achieve such great things today. Can I trust in the power of the cross to transform the world’s brokenness, greed, and ignorance— and that of my own? If so, then it should show in my manner of interacting with others, doing my work, and facing my problems. Imagine the darkest, most desperate part of your reality right now, invite God’s love in, and allow its quiet work of transformation to prove you wrong.
This happened when the world dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. Not a few men and women have responded generously, confronting the physical evils of this plague and the moral evils that it provokes in us, with selfless dedication. Are we surprised? It has proven in real and practical terms, what we have always known in theory: that in the face of grave and dire situations, love can still work miracles. Humanity must remember what we have been able to achieve, with the grace of God, when we opened our hearts to each other and helped each other carry our crosses, for the world is still in need of much healing, not just from Covid.
Sometimes death comes unexpectedly; in other situations, we are helpless about it. Other times, it is unjust. But when a life is offered in the manner of Christ crucified, it might help to somehow ease the pain and unravel the mystery by seeing it through the eyes of divine love, to realize from whom it came and for what end it had been sacrificed.
*Delivered at the Church of St Anne, Jerusalem