The Exaltation of the Cross

Christ of St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dali

About one third of the world’s population is Christian. Each year, more than 25 million people are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And each year, about 100,000 Christians are martyred, coming to share fully in the death of Christ.

There has never been a century since Christ in which Christians did not give their lives for the faith. From the beginning they were acknowledged as martyrs, those whose witness to Christ was writ in blood. But, whether one considers numbers or percentages, put bluntly, as John Allen does in his 2013 The Global War on Christians, we are “today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet.”

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Allen’s book easily marshals examples. “The evangelical group Open Doors, devoted to monitoring anti-Christian persecution, estimates that one hundred million Christians worldwide presently face interrogation, arrest, torture, or even death because of their religious convictions.” 

For example, in 2008, in northeastern India “a series of riots ended with as many as five hundred Christians killed, many hacked to death by machete-wielding Hindu radicals, thousands more were injured; and at least fifty thousand were left homeless.” 

In Nigeria the militant Islamic group Boko Haram “is held responsible for almost three thousand deaths.” Like its counterpart in Egypt, Christians and their churches are targeted. 

In North Korea “roughly a quarter of the country’s two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand Christians are believed to be living in forced labor camps because of their refusal to join the national cult around founder Kim Il Sung…Some three hundred thousand Christians in North Korea have simply disappeared and are presumed to be dead.”

Before the first Gulf War, more than a million and a half Iraqis were Christians, whose origins dated to the age of the apostles. A year ago, after relentless bombings and unrestrained persecution, the number of them in Iraq was close to one hundred thousand. That was before the rise of ISIS and its declaration that there is nothing to give Christians “but the sword.” This summer, in Mosul, Christians, including children, have been beheaded, even crucified.

When unprecedented numbers of Christians are being murdered, what does it mean to celebrate—this year during our Sunday liturgies—the Exaltation of the Cross? The Church Father Tertullian said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” but this seed should never be blithely scattered. Even as the church celebrates her most faithful witnesses, she must also mourn their deaths. 

The church exists to midwife the Kingdom of God, which is one of peace and justice. She cannot ignore the injustice, the violence, perpetrated against her own people. The meaning of this feast cannot be that it is good for men and women to die violently for the faith because, in doing so, they imitate Christ. To exult the cross is not to celebrate violence, neither that inflicted upon Jesus nor upon his followers.

One cannot suggest that what happened on Calvary, two millennia ago, cancels the contemporary evil perpetrated against Christians, or anyone else. The meaning of the cross is not that violence has been transformed into something that we proclaim—paradoxically, with an eye toward the world to come—as good. That would make the cross of Christ an enemy of men and women, because what is evil—and his crucifixion surely was—cannot be baptized by blather into something good.

If the cross were simply a human horror, made inspirational by centuries of whitewashing piety, then to exult Calvary would be to perpetrate the very evil cited by many critics of religion. It would be akin to that perversion of authentic Islam, which tells the fanatically violent that Paradise awaits them. 

The cross cancels our calculations. From the earth, looking up at its beams, at his bloodied, outstretched arms, it defies sense. Those who stood beneath the cross saw it as the death of all their hopes, the terrible judgment of God upon the wickedness of earth. 

Only God can comprehend the cross, which is to say that no human dares to assign its meaning. To call the cross the great mystery of God is to rebuke every human effort to domesticate the divine. The death of Jesus upon the cross is not a past event that makes the present palatable for the persecuted. 

No, we must see the cross as the eternal, the standing-outside-of-time, the ever ancient and ever new decision of God, which is to enter into the abasement of sin and its consequent suffering. Christians don’t go to their violent deaths because Christ went to Calvary. Christ embraces the wood of the cross because the innocent died before him, died after him, continue to die. 

The cross draws all of human history—past, present and future—into those outstretched arms. The will of God—Father, Son and Spirit—is revealed there. The meaning of history is curiously carved into its wood.

He emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross (Phil 2: 7-8).

No religion can transform evil into good. Evil is absolute inanity, the complete absence of the good. You cannot directly choose to do evil to accomplish the good. Those who try only diminish the good, in themselves and the world. 

You can suffer evil, like the martyrs, or resist it, like those who fight to restrain it. Martyrs are not passive, and good soldiers are not evil. They are righteous in resisting. But there is a reason that the cross of Christ belongs on ambulances and not at the head of armies. Christ chooses to suffer the cross. Note the present tense of the verb. Christ chooses. It will never enter the past tense until the world, its sin and suffering, is gathered to him.

Numbers 21: 4b-9     Philippians 2: 6-11    John 3: 13-17

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