Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cross Purposes

We see so many images of the Cross: in icons and other holy pictures, on churches, around people’s necks, even on internet blogs. It may be that we get desensitized to it, comfortable with it, perhaps even get a little fuzzy about its true purpose. The image of the crucified Christ should make you more uncomfortable than comfortable, at least at first, until you experience the love that flows out of Jesus’ wounds along with his Precious Blood.

What is the purpose of the Cross? Huge volumes, and many, have been written down through the centuries, and probably more are yet to come. Here I just want to take a brief look. The reason for the Cross is that “God so loved the world that He sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). Human sin was the reason that the gate of Paradise was locked, and the Cross is the key that re-opened it. But was God so mad at us that He demanded nothing less than the bloody sacrifice of his own Son to appease his wrath? Was the purpose of the Cross the satisfaction of God’s offended honor? Some writers (even saints) have said so, and there is a grain of truth to it, but that is not even close to telling the whole story.

God could have forgiven all our sins with a simple fiat, “Let it be done.” But if He did that, we might have ended up mistaking Him for a sort of benign Administrator discharging the day's duties in a calm and detached manner. But God is a Lover (read the Prophets to discover some of his passion), and nothing short of the utterly complete manifestation of his love would have sufficed. Love is most perfectly manifested in sacrifice (that is why the two-becoming-one sacrifice/ecstasy of married love is an image of divine love), and only a complete and perfect sacrifice would manifest the love of God and communicate his power to forgive, heal, and save. The sacrifice began with the Incarnation, the Son’s incomprehensible sacrifice of his eternal divine glory for the sake of becoming a lowly human being like us. The agony and ecstasy of his sacrifice was consummated on the Cross (Latin for “It is finished” is Consummatum est). If to suffer for the beloved is the highest form of selfless offering in love, then Jesus had to take human suffering to the limit (and beyond), to pour out his lifeblood fully, that we would find forgiveness in this love, and return to Him with our whole heart. Scripture says not only that He loved us, but that He loved us “to the end” (John 13:1), that is, to the utmost.

Pope Benedict has recently reminded us that this awe-inspiring and profound mystery of the Cross is not simply good for a reflection on what God has done for us long ago. This very mystery is present to us daily in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in Holy Communion. He says: “The Eucharist is the memorial of the whole paschal mystery…and the Cross is the tangible manifestation of the infinite act of love with which the Son of God has saved man and the world from sin and death. Because of this, the sign of the Cross is the fundamental gesture of the Christian’s prayer. To make the sign of the Cross is to pronounce a visible and public ‘yes’ to Him who died for us… When we receive Holy Communion we also…embrace the Wood which Jesus with his love has transformed into the instrument of salvation, and we pronounce our ‘Amen,’ our ‘yes’ to crucified and risen Love.”

That is the purpose of the Cross, yesterday, today, and up to the moment we meet Him face to face and enter his intimate embrace in the Kingdom of Heaven. Then we will know the meaning of everlasting love, and we will glory in the eternal fruitfulness of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.