The news these days is grim. Injustices that cry to heaven abound, while people feel ever more frustrated at their extremely limited ability to do anything about them. Our actions to combat injustices seem futile as the carnage goes on. We are tempted to ask, “Where is our God?”
In the midst of the cacophony that daily assaults my consciousness, I also hear a persistent leitmotiv in the background. It swells up from my childhood and has been reinforced throughout the years: “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, for by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.” That the world is in need of redemption is painfully clear; human efforts alone are insufficient to solve our problems. Redemption, the free gift of liberation from the chaos that infects our world, is very appealing. But what do these words, taken from the Way of the Cross, mean outside their devotional context? How does Christ’s cross redeem the world?
The role the cross plays in the redemption of the world, though essential, is extremely problematic for us. Traditional explanations of the role of the cross usually include something about a ransom to the Father, a sacrifice and the fulfillment of the Father’s will. These explanations are true but are so subject to misunderstanding that they frequently either lead to scandal or relegate the cross to insignificance. The Father’s demand for the Son’s gruesome death in order to redeem the world is scandalous. What loving parent, people ask, demands her or his child’s death before being willing to fix something that is broken...even if it is the universe? The rejection of this false image of God unfortunately leads to a rejection of Christian faith as well.
Another, more subtle and perhaps more dangerous false response to the inaccurate understanding of the value of the cross robs the cross of its power. As post-Vatican II Catholics contemplate the Father, we see a loving God who desires peace and justice. The post-Vatican II church looks critically upon the neo-Jansenist fascination with pain that would gain many merits for those who voluntarily inflict suffering on themselves. Post-Vatican II Christians have, therefore, gleefully liberated themselves from the inaccurate understanding of Christian asceticism that may be summarized by the mantra “no pain, no gain” well before athletes discovered it. It wasn’t, consequently, much of a leap from “no pain, no gain” to “no pain...no pain!” Popular post-Vatican II Catholic spirituality has replaced whips and chains—and the cross—with the Enneagram and massage therapy, as people piously and earnestly seek the peace and happiness of God’s kingdom. The cross has become enervated and gilded. It loses its ability to inspire. Its redemptive power is frustrated.
The rejection of a spirituality that sees merit in suffering is a very good thing. But the rejection or, at least, ignorance of the cross that often follows is a disaster. The pursuit of the peace of God’s kingdom is not without pitfalls: it is a short transition along a slippery slope from the “pursuit of the peace of God’s kingdom” to, simply, “the pursuit of peace,” with or without God’s kingdom. Publicity for retreat and spiritual renewal programs is often characterized by an impressive variety of means to make people feel good about themselves and to minister to themselves. Much modern Catholic liturgical music is designed to soothe and console; it rarely challenges the listener.
Although peace and feeling good about oneself are fine things, the focus of Christian spirituality is the development of a living, loving, dynamic relationship with God. This relationship necessarily expresses itself in good works that combat injustice and promote the establishment of the kingdom. “Consolation” will characterize that relationship, but it is not its goal. Furthermore, authentic consolation can be painful in the context of the sinful world in which we live. There is no consolation without “sacrifice,” and there is no sacrifice without some pain. In common parlance the word sacrifice usually means “giving something up.” It is significant that this definition of the word has evolved from the word’s root meaning, “to make holy,” as seen in its Latin origin of sacrum (holy) and facere (to make).
The Christian tradition recognizes that becoming holy somehow involves giving something up. The cross was Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. It was his ultimate act of self-gift: it provided the ultimate expression of his love. The only way for Jesus to avoid death would have been to renounce the love that motivated his life and work. Jesus was executed because he refused to stop loving; he refused to stop challenging the world’s status quo. He seems to have known that his mission in life was to love without limits. In his agony in the garden on the night before his execution, he rejected any compromise of that mission. He had earlier struggled with his uncompromising commitment to love. The Gospel according to Mark (8:31-33) reports Peter’s suggestion to Jesus that he could accomplish his mission, the redemption of the world, without suffering—a very tempting proposition. Jesus recognizes this proposal as an attractive lie and in no uncertain terms rejects it. He characterizes it as human reasoning, in contrast with divine wisdom. His love conquers evil. His refusal to limit his love, his act of sacrifice, leads directly to the triumph of the cross. His love is absolutely free of selfishness and self-centeredness. Christ’s cross redeems the world because it is the love that shines in the darkness, a darkness that cannot overcome it. This love reconciles all things and brings the peace that characterizes the very life of the community of the Holy Trinity.
The Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren illuminates an important distinction in our understanding of “love” in his work Agape and Eros. Eros is a love that is always somehow characterized by selfishness or self-concern. It seeks the good for oneself. The word never appears in the New Testament. Agape is a love that is characterized by selflessness and a total freedom from self-concern and preoccupation. It seeks the good—without ever disdaining one’s own good. This is the love that, according to the First Letter of John, God is and the way for people to be. Although it results in self-fulfillment, self-fulfillment is not its goal. Paul exhorts Christians to participate in Christ’s agape and to reject eros in the Christological hymn in Philippians 2:3-11:
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.
Let all of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus’ agape led him inexorably to the cross and then, equally inexorably, to the resurrection and ascension. Jesus was agape incarnate. His entire life was an actualization of selfless love. The focus of his existence was the Father and his will for the reconciliation of the whole world with himself. He loved the world as the Father loves the world, free from selfishness and self-concern. His motivation was the mutual and perfect love between himself and the Father. Nothing could stop him from loving, not even the loss of peace and tranquility. Peace and tranquility were not his goal. His goal was to do the Father’s will, to make the world holy through his love.
The chaos of our world springs from eros love, characterized by selfishness, “national interests,” competition, territoriality, the relentless pursuit of security and control at all costs and the quest for pleasure. It cannot fathom the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s agape love incarnate in Jesus. The experience of agape love demands conversion: a life characterized by altruism, the unity of all humanity, cooperation, hospitality, vulnerability and the quest for justice. And that conversion includes birth pangs; it involves a death to an old life, in which one is fractured, and a rebirth to a new life, in which one is more whole. It involves the courage to live that love in the midst of chaos and cacophony.
The peace Christ bequeaths to the world is not what the world imagines peace to be, as Jesus warns his disciples in preparation for his passion (Jn 14:27). The sword that pierces the loving heart of Mary (Lk 2:35) and the hearts of all who love can be avoided only through a renunciation of agape. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34), warns Jesus as he announces his intention to rearrange the status quo. The peace for which Christians pray is the peace that results from union with God and includes profound changes in our lives. The pursuit of peace in and of itself, on the other hand, is a subtle form of selfishness—even hedonism.
The history of the world is the history of salvation. It is the story of God’s agape dispelling the darkness of sin, suffering, confusion, slaughter and injustice and the story of reconciling all creation in a communion of love. It is the story of God inviting humanity to collaborate with him in the establishment of his kingdom. As we seek to respond to that invitation and to participate in this history, let us be under no illusion: agape love is the only way to redeem the world; and because of the sin in our world, it leads directly to the cross. There is no resurrection and ascension without the cross.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the church, taught the “little way” of the cross, a spirituality accessible to everyone. She and her spirituality, like the cross, have often been the victim of gilding. As she lay dying of tuberculosis at age 24 in 1897, her Carmelite sisters tried to make her conform to their romantic notions of sanctity; after her death they edited her works to make then “nicer.” The insipid word nice, however, in no way describes Thérèse or her experience. In communion with Christ’s love and for the love of Christ, she lived and acted out of love in the full knowledge that this love would involve the cross—that is, unromantic, sometimes unjust and hidden suffering. Her love for Christ included profound spiritual and physical suffering.
Even before she began to suffer from tuberculosis, Thérèse united herself with people who experienced God’s absence in order to help them experience his love. It was Thérèse’s desire that all people participate in the communion of love that she shared with Christ. She became like those who do not feel God’s love in order to reveal that love to them. A few months before her death she tried to correct her religious sisters’ romantic notion of her illness: “You would like to know if I am looking forward to going to Paradise? I would if I were going there, but...I am not depending on the illness; it drives too slowly. I depend only on love; ask the good Lord that all the prayers which are offered for me serve to increase the Fire which ought to consume me.” Like Christ on the cross, she felt abandoned by God but never believed herself to be abandoned. Immediately before expiring she looked at a crucifix and said, “Oh! I love you!” Her union with the crucified one led her to share in his victory over evil.
St. Ignatius Loyola, who is less susceptible to romantic gilding, asks people to do spiritual exercises that help them to realize existentially that the only escape from the chains of sin is God’s infinite mercy. That mercy finds its clearest manifestation in the love of the crucified Christ. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius urges exercitants to accept Christ’s invitation to accompany him, to enter into his life through love for him, to conform their lives to his such that they “desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; to be counted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me” (Spiritual Exercises, No. 167). Their communion with him in love will lead to the cross and to the resurrection.
The various activities in which we engage in order to collaborate with God’s inexorable history of salvation are essential for a variety of reasons. First, of course, they may actually bear fruit. But even if they do not, even if they are frustrated, ignored or reviled, they shall have been an exercise in love. They are a participation in the cross of Christ, by which Christ redeems the world.