The Meaning of the Cross

A prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

“In dying, we are born to eternal life.” Today, Good Friday, gives us a chance to meditate on the meaning of the Cross—the central mystery of the whole Christian faith.

It is so easy, in our modern, scientific world, to avoid the whole idea of meaning. We can say that the likely date of the Crucifixion was April 7th, 30 AD. Pontius Pilate would have likely referred to it as six days before the Nones of April, in the year 792 from the founding of the city of Rome. The Jews would have marked it as the thirteenth day of the first month, the day before the feast of the Passover. On that day a rabble rousing religious teacher was put to a painful and shameful death, to prevent a riot against the power of Rome, and to satisfy the jealousies, or the fears, of the religious authorities of his time. But that is a bit like taking the works of Shakespeare, and describing them as a book, so many inches long, wide and deep, weighing so much, with so many thousands of the letter ‘e’, and proportionately less of other letters. We have much information, and we have been told nothing.

To find meaning, we have to travel to another world—a world that science cannot measure and so often forgets—a world of qualities rather than quantities. It is there that we can find meaning. And because that meaning belongs to a world beyond quantities such as time and space, it means that the Cross is not simply an unpleasant event of long, long ago, but a constant force that is as significant now as at any time in the history of the Universe.

St. Paul, talking of Jesus Christ, tells how “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.” If there is one constant in the character of Jesus that we can see through all his life, this surely is it.

“He came down to Earth from Heaven
Who is God and Lord of all;
And His shelter was a stable
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

Whether it is in his birth, his healing miracles, his teachings, or now in his death on the Cross, we see the same Jesus—‘man for others’—ever giving of himself, that others may have life more abundantly. There is no end to the reflections that we can have over the meaning of this life, and this death, but I would like to use this background to think of seven aspects of the Cross that we can think on and perhaps take away with ourselves today, to understand the meaning of it all.

First – Obedience. Christ, “though he was a son, yet learned he obedience from what he suffered.” As he said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I constrained until it was accomplished.” There were ways in which Jesus could have avoided the Cross. We know that the Thursday night, he thought of calling legions of angels to his aid, or encouraging his disciples to take swords and fight. In the end, though, after hours spent wrestling in prayer, Jesus’s mind was composed to accept the horrible fate that lay ahead of him. “How else might the Scriptures be fulfilled?” It was his decision to walk on through this ‘Dark night of the Soul’ in blind obedience to what he knew was the will of the Father, knowing well the suffering, shame and humiliation that would be his. It is a lesson to ourselves that it is not what feels good, but what in reality is good, that is the path that we follow if we are to be true followers of Christ.

Secondly – Victory. It is hard to think of anything that looks less of a site of triumph than the hill of Calvary—yet that is what the Church claims to be the case, so much so that ever since that day the Cross, a symbol of shameful death, has become the proud symbol of the Christian church. The victory was firstly that of Jesus himself over the temptations of the easy path—something he had faced in the desert at the outset of his ministry. The temptation of wealth and comfort. The temptation to prestige by becoming a religious idol. The temptation to use the powers of this world to become the controller of this world. All these he had rejected at the very outset of his ministry. This conquest of the world’s temptations within himself was the preliminary to ‘making a public example’ of this world’s powers—the money that lured Judas, the political power that Pilate wanted to protect, the religious authority that the High Priest made use of to sacrifice one innocent person, “rather than that the whole nation should perish.” The sum total of the achievements of the powers of this world had been the slaughter of an innocent man under the pretext of profit, religious orthodoxy, and democracy. These idols cannot demand our respect any further. The Cross has shown up their emptiness.

Thirdly – Sacrifice. Christ calls himself “The good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep”—yet Christ is also portrayed as the “Lamb of God”. Shepherd and sheep share the same fate—each lays down his life for the other. Should the shepherd not lay down his life for the sheep, the wolves will devour the flock. Should the sheep not lay down their lives for the shepherd, the shepherd would starve. Each gains his life from the sacrifice of the other. It is through the death of each that the whole process of life is enabled to continue. The paradox is, that if we cling beyond measure to our lives, we in fact embrace death!

The night before his death, Jesus compared himself to a grain of wheat, being thrown into the ground so that in due course it would bear “much fruit”. In the same way, he made bread and wine—wheat that had been harvested, milled and baked: grapes that had been plucked, crushed, fermented and made into wine—the symbols of his own body, sacrificed for the good of mankind, a sacrament that we receive daily in our eating and drinking, and most specifically in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Perhaps, as we look out on the world God has made, we assume too easily that ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ represents a ‘dog eat dog’ world, where all are reluctant to become food for others. Yet the Psalmist gives a picture of valleys full of corn laughing and singing, ready to be reaped in the harvest through which the mature grain can fulfill its destiny of providing sustenance for the human race, and seed for the coming year. Is it not possible that all nature willingly fits into its place in the ‘food chain’, and only mankind resists the way of nature by trying to avoid the inevitable path of sacrifice, that Jesus was willing to embrace?

Fourthly – Reconciliation. “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all, and by his stripes, we are healed.” “God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself.” God’s love has proved stronger than the hatred of man. “God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The Old Testament story tells how Joseph was set upon and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Later, he has become ruler of Egypt, and his brothers have come to him needing food. Joseph’s message about their behaviour is “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God, who gave free will to mankind, has covered with his own love and suffering the damage that man has done by the abuse of that free will. The Cross brings to sinful mankind the lesson of man’s forgiveness through the love of Christ.

Fifthly – Repentance. How easy it is for all of us to go through life, without any idea of how much damage we have done to others by the way we have lived our lives. Seeing the damage caused to an innocent person, as we do when we see Jesus on the Cross, can be the key for us to realize the enormity of our misdeeds. So the penitent thief recognizes that he deserves his punishment. Judas confesses that he has betrayed innocent blood. The soldier at the foot of the cross acknowledges that Jesus was a righteous man. The suffering of the good brings us to recognize and confess the sin that has lain behind it. Both good and evil are shown in their true colours when contrasted with each other. Good shows up evil. Evil shows up good.

Sixthly – Redemption. “In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Jesus’s day, slaves who had earned sufficient money could redeem themselves—buy their freedom from their masters. We, however, do not and cannot buy ourselves out from under the debt we owe our Creator for the evil we have done. That debt has already been satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ. The price of our freedom has been paid.

Seventhly, and finally – Promise. Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross”. Jesus is already looking beyond this Good Friday. “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you may be also.” To the penitent thief he says: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Perhaps at this time we do not know exactly what form the happy ending will take—but we know in our hearts that the Cross is not an end, but a beginning.

But before I end, there is one more character to be introduced on this Good Friday stage who is often forgotten. I refer to God the Father. It is easy enough to have a picture from the Old Testament of God as an ‘Angry old man up in the sky’—forgetting that Jesus has said “I and the Father are one”, and “He that has seen me, has seen the Father.” How right it is for our consecration prayer in the Eucharist to begin by saying “Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee, almighty Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son, Jesus Christ … to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption.” Now we can realize that the same journey from riches to poverty that others might become rich, characteristic of Jesus’s life, is a reflection of the self-giving of the Father in our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. ‘Going to the Father’, in the spiritual universe I have mentioned, is not physical travel, but rather becoming utterly the same in nature as the Father, as we might tune in on a radio station, to be on the same frequency—hence, too, Jesus’s remark that “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

The Cross, then, that spells hope for us, spells also challenge. It reveals Jesus Christ truly as the Son of God, sharing God’s nature, and in doing so, reveals God the Father himself as our most generous friend. It shows us Obedience bringing Victory: Sacrifice being the key to Repentance and Redemption, and Reconciliation bringing us the Promise of Paradise to come. To quote the Communion service again, it challenges us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” to God. For the Cross shows us that it is indeed in dying that we are born into eternal life, and it is through the Cross of Christ that we are ourselves enabled to come to the Father.

– Text of a sermon delivered in April 1996