Wednesday, September 14, 2011
The Triumph of the Cross
This last week we celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. To our ears, the words triumph and cross being in the same phrase and in relation to one another does not seem odd. In the time of Jesus, these words would have seemed as foreign to each other as if we were to say ‘the triumph of the gas chamber’ or ‘the triumph of the firing squad’; we would not assume the executed had triumphed, but that the executioner had triumphed. Crucifixion is a form of capital punishment. In fact, it was devised to be an extraordinarily slow and painful form of execution meant to terrify anyone from crossing the Roman government or any other empire that used it. In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was primarily used against those who rebelled against the Roman Empire. Were one to say ‘the triumph of the cross’ in the time of Jesus, it would have been understood as the triumph of Roman execution over those who wanted freedom from them. This, of course, is not what is meant when we say it, and what we mean by it is not spinning a defeat into a win, as we see so often in this world, especially in politics.
For Christ, the Cross was not to be avoided, but to be embraced. He came into this world for one reason, to set us free from our enslavement to sin and death. Unlike the Jews of Jesus’ time who had been conquered by a foreign empire they had fought, sin and death had been invited in and had been submitted to by those who invited it in. We had not had our freedom ripped from us, rather, we had surrendered it on the false promise of getting to be our own god. Our turning from God surrendered what our relationship with God has entailed; we surrendered the temporary for the eternal, that which could be destroyed for that which was indestructible, that which seeks our destruction from that which sought our eternal good. Humanity willfully enslaved itself and brought upon itself its own death. Were God not a loving God, He could have left us to our destruction, turned away from our enslavement with nothing more than a dismissive caveat emptor to us who had chosen so foolishly. However our God is a loving God and would not abandon us to our enslavers. He would purchase back His fallen creation at the steepest of prices; he exchanged His only Son for the slaves and allowed His Son to suffer the wrath due us. The triumph of the Cross is that we are gathered back at the cost of God’s love for us displayed by the crucified Christ. We are the benefactors of the triumph! Not by anything we did ; in fact, very much contrary to what we did. God gathered back to Himself what had been estranged through sin. Christ triumphs over sin and death by the supreme act of selfless love in submitting Himself to the cross, enduring its sacrifice and suffering out of love for each one of us!
This has direct implications for us. We should not surrender that which has been gained for us through the cross of Christ! To willfully sin is to surrender what Christ has done for us. To willfully sin is to try to rob the cross of its triumph. I say ‘try’ in that the sacrifice of Jesus, done once and for all, can never be undone by human choice ever again; however we do have the power to exclude ourselves from the triumph of the cross by willfully sinning. Why? Because all sin is antithetical to the cross; the cross is the ultimate act of selfless love, all sin is an action of selfishness. The cross, the form of execution of a rebel, opened the gates of heaven to those who had rebelled. How foolish it would be to embrace rebellion again after so hard a fight and victory as had been engaged by Christ! To share in the triumph is to share in its freedom from sin and death.
Another implication of the Triumph of the Cross is in sharing the vision of each other that led God to send us Son and in His Son’s willingness to lay down His life. The Gospel today (John 3:12-17) reminds us that the Father sent the Son into world not to condemn it, but to save it. Think about the implications of that in how we are to view one another. Several weeks back, I wrote Pastor’s pens regarding the damage that could be done by the seven deadly sins and their virtuous antidotes. There were three I have not covered: lust, wrath, and envy. These three deal with how we view one another. These three drive us to diminish the humanity of another, to attack the dignity of another, and to see each other as worthy of only scorn, judgment, and revenge. These sins pit us against each other and coerce us into a very different vision of humanity than that which God has. God never reduces the person to being an end for selfish pleasure as lust does. Nor does God seethe with envy at what we have and wish to destroy us for it. Were God interested in wrath, that is revenge, the Son never would have come into this world. There would be no triumph of the cross because the cross could not happen as an act of divine vengeance. The triumph is a triumph of divine selfless love over revenge and wrath. The triumph of the cross is a triumph that tells us God wants to pull our dignity to Himself despite the fact that we so often surrender that dignity to sin.
This final aspect of the Triumph of the Cross beckons us to see ourselves and those around us with the eyes of the Father; to live as those who share in the triumph of the cross. We share in that triumph every time we choose to be selfless and heroic. We share in the triumph whenever we look at ourselves as salvageable and worthy of God’s love, not by what we have done, but by what God chooses to do. We share in the triumph when we widen that same vision upon those around us. When we choose to see what is good about a person before we see what we do not like. When our vision of others is not truncated by race, socio-economic status, political leanings, educational levels, and the myriad of others differences we choose to put before what is to be loved, respected, dignified, and reinforced in the goodness of another. When we seek truth over ambition and wish for that which is truly good for others, then we share in the triumph of the cross. The cross was not a weapon by which God condemns man, but a means by which He saves humanity. Mimicking the love of the cross which embraces sacrifice and suffering for the good of another is what speaks to that noblest part of us which is created in the image and likeness of God. To attach ourselves to the cross is to attach ourselves to its victory. Thus we must see past the sin and dinginess of humanity to that which God saw as worthy of His love and worthy of His Son’s life. God did not use the cross to enable our sinfulness but to give us the means to rise above it. Let us use, then, that same cross to live the truth and in doing so, to allow the grace of God to raise each human person to share in the triumph that the cross bears to this world.