Catholics surround themselves with crucifixes. They wear them around their necks, mount them to their walls, stick them on their dashboards, and multiply them in their churches. The image of Christ suffering on the Cross is ubiquitous.
The Scandal of the Cross
But in spite of this ubiquity (or maybe because of it), do you take time to stop and gaze upon the Cross? If not, take time now. What do you see? The omnipotent, immortal, eternal Son of God—True God and True Man— is bleeding to death; He is suffering and dying. This paradox, this Scandal of the Cross, both troubles and consoles the soul; it both mystifies and clarifies the intellect. St. Paul called the Cross “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). His analysis also applies to anyone, today, who first objects to the figure of Christ in agony.
According to Henri Daniel-Rops, the Scandal of the Cross was unacceptable to the Jews and Gentiles on several counts. The Greeks rejected the “idea of a man being at the same time a god” or “that a god would elect to die.” The Jews rejected the Incarnation as scandalous; a monotheistic God does not become man. And although they practiced animal sacrifice, the Jews rejected the idea “that God should offer himself to God, that God should be a victim” (1). The Scandal of the Cross argues against a suffering, dying God. How can omnipotence suffer? How can eternity die?
The Scandal is resolved in Truth and Divine Love
The Jews and Greeks described by St. Paul lacked an understanding of the Trinity (three Persons in one God) and of Christ’s hypostatic union (two natures, divine and human, united in one Person). They lacked an understanding of how God suffered, not in his divinity, but in his humanity. Yet, because the two distinct natures are united in one Person, we can say that God truly suffered and died. Even today, we know these truths imperfectly, described by Frank Sheed, more as “momentary flashes of light, glimpses and glances, in which we half see it” (2). So, we fully understand the shock experienced by the Jews and Greeks of St. Paul’s time when confronted with a suffering God.
But, if antagonists can overcome the first element of shock to allow for the reality of Christ as God, they might ask, “Why did God suffer and die?” At that moment, they open themselves up to the greatest and first truth: God is Love.
In 1994, Pope John Paul II responded to a journalist’s questions, Vittorio Messori, eventually developing his answers into a best-selling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In this book, John Paul proposed his own question, “Was putting [God’s] Son to death on the Cross necessary for the salvation of humanity?” In response, he described a God virtually unknown to the Jew or Greek of St. Paul’s time, and even to the antagonists of our own. God is not only Omnipotence; he is Love.
He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God who shares man’s lot and participates in his destiny (3). … [T]he crucified Christ is proof of God’s solidarity with man in his suffering. God places Himself on the side of man. … Yes! God is Love and precisely for this He gave His Son, to reveal Himself completely as Love. Christ is the One who ‘loved…to the end’ Jn 13:1” (4)
Divine Love: demonstrated, preeminent truth, mystery
Divine Love reveals several realities. Each reality reflects both God’s omnipotence and his love, both his transcendence and his immanence.
- Divine Love must be demonstrated. George Weigel quotes John Paul (Salvifici Doloris) when he writes, “[Love as an] answer to…the meaning of suffering’ requires not a rational argument, but a demonstration. That is what God has ‘given…in the cross of Jesus Christ’” (5).
- Divine Love is the first truth. According to Hans Von Balthasar, it precedes Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (Church) as the original authority, the ultimate act in flesh (6). All of Christianity’s teaching draw from this origin, this divine act of love. In other words, God is Love is the first truth. In his book, Love Alone is Credible, Balthasar wrote:
- “[C]hristianity, as a genuine revealed religion, cannot be a communication of knowledge, a ‘teaching’, in the first place, but only secondarily. It must be in the first place an action that God undertakes, the playing out of the drama that God began with mankind in the Old Covenant” (7).
- Divine Love is mystery. We know that God suffered for our sins. But how does knowledge—powerful and necessary in itself—explain the depth of His love; the coming down to His hapless, fallen, and often, ungrateful creatures; or the utter self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ for us? The words we use to explain this mystery pale before the action of the Word Himself. Balthasar writes of God’s unfathomable and inexhaustible love:
- The sign of the God who empties himself into humanity, death, and abandonment by God, shows us why God came forth from himself, indeed descended below himself, as creator of the world: [He revealed] himself in his unfathomable and absolutely uncompelled freedom as inexhaustible love. (8)
How do we respond?
Now, let’s return our gaze to the Cross. How do we respond? Knowing what we know, and loving Divine Love as we do, is it possible “to leave the One who died for us to his fate”? (9). Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams, was not Catholic. But out of curiosity, he once visited a Romish Chappell. And what he saw and experienced might speak for us. He wrote to his wife, Abigail:
But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds. … The Musick consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the Afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted—most sweetly and exquisitely. … Here is everything that can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination (10).
Spend some time before the Cross. Know the reality of Christ’s suffering in order to return His Divine Love, the first truth.
What crucifix or painting do you find most powerful?
(Thanks to Jim Wrich for suggesting the topic of truth and love)
- Jesus and His Times, Henri Daniel-Rops, 429
- Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed, 269
- Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II, 62
- Ibid, 66-67
- The Truth of Catholicism, George Weigel, 118
- Love Alone is Credible, Hans Von Balthasar, 56
- Ibid, 70
- Ibid, 145
- Ibid, 94
- The Book of Abigail and John, ed., L. H. Butterfield, 79