The Cross

By Bob Howard In Essays

Good Friday.  The Cross of Jesus.  Some downplay it as morbid.  Some emphasize its bloody outcome as integral to its understanding. And all of us who claim to love Jesus need to take it into account.

The Cross as Centerpiece

I celebrate it here as God's eternal metaphor, that event in the middle of time provided to explain and redeem human existence.

The cross is a dialectical symbol... as well as a brutal fact in the biography of Jesus.  I regret having to use that word "dialectical" because it rings so loudly of the philosophical.  So please forgive me, and trust in my judgment that there is something very serious here, if we are to avoid the fundamentalist's bathos or the Unitarian's short shrift about the cross.

That is (dialectically, as in dialogue: "on the one hand, then on the other") the cross of Jesus Christ marks the place where heaven and hell touch one another. Where pure goodness borders on the vilest evil.  Where hope is crushed, yet lifted as high as heaven.  Where the abject end of a perfect life attends the birth of life eternal.    There there is a grand evocation of self-giving for love's sake; and there there is a terrible incidence of depravity for multiple reasons, all of which are despicable.

The Bible contains other echoes of this dialectic: Genesis 3 and why it should be that the forbidden fruit of the tree of life, when eaten, leads to death; Psalm 139 and the God who cannot be escaped even in hell, which echo is echoed in the phrase Methodists have excluded from the Apostle's Creed; Isaiah 53 in which the prophet hails the triumph of righteousness through a weak and inglorious suffering servant; Romans 7:19 wherein St. Paul rues his inner conflict, that he doesn't do the good he should but does the evil he shouldn't; the several "dark sayings" of Jesus, for one the admonition to his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves; and the insistent use of "glorification" (against the facts otherwise) in the Gospel according to John to describe Calvary.  

The mystery in these verses can be illuminating when regarded dialectically... both/and... seeming contradictions... holding two seemingly mutually exclusive certainties... a prospect difficult for the logical mind, but certainly not to the mind of God.      

Consider, for example, our treatment of optimism and pessimism, that they are either/or but not equally resident in one soul.  In fact, from what I hear others say, it seems to be downright unAmerican to be a pessimist.  And, yes, in the pulpit I've sought always to be positive, to deliver the bad news about us within the context of the saving grace of the Gospel (which is a synonym for "good news").  

But the pastor shirks his plain duty if he ignores the cross's blame for Jesus' death on the human propensity to violence, scapegoating, and easy acceptance of cruelty done to someone else. Calvary shines a very harsh light on human evil, for which there is evidence aplenty every day with the delivery of the headlines of the newspaper.  Sin and evil are ever with us.  

So are grace and goodness.  That not only pick up the pieces of the mess we make of our world; but heal and restore a harmony that make tomorrow possible.  The seven last words, each in their own way, reflect both the pain and the promise.  In each is resident a saving factor which may not erase the evil but redeems it.  

Life as we live it, in ordinary time and extraordinary moments, is like that.    

Sixty plus years ago in Brooklyn, pastor that I was, I searched for a Biblical verse for the revised Sunday order of worship, a sentence or a phrase that would sum up the Christian faith.  I found I Corinthians 2:2: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."  Then, as now, I took this verse not as ecclesiastical piety but as my commitment to realism about our humanity, with all its warts and wounds, and, dialectically (!), as an aspiration to match the mind of Christ, in all its goodness and generosity.

The shadow of the cross is cast over human existence, if to expose the horrors of which we are capable, then also to shield us from the blazing light of God's "fearful reckoning," that we may embrace instead the ways of peace and love.


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