St. Anselm of Canterbury on the Paradox of the Cross

The fundamental paradox of Christianity is the Cross. A reading for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Philippians 2:6-11, reveals the outlines of this paradox. This passage, known as “the Hymn to Christ,” is thought by many scholars to be a “pre-Pauline” hymn, sung, recited or chanted in the Church at Philippi, or elsewhere, even before its appearance in Paul’s letter in the late 50s of the first century. The paradox is early and central to the message of the Gospel:  the one who will save us will die the death of a slave or a criminal in utter agony.  Even more, as Paul proclaims, the one who will subject himself to this humiliation is God:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, 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.


Yet, by “coming in human likeness” and “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross,”

Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those 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.

So ubiquitous is the Cross in Christian imagery and practice, that the paradox is sometimes hidden away, lost to our consciousness. It has been accomplished and so “exaltation” not “cross” remains. St. Anselm of Canterbury reflected on the paradox, though, in his Meditation on Human Redemption and in it the weakness and power of the Cross and Christ are drawn powerfully:

But what strength is there in such weakness, what height in such lowliness? What is there to be venerated in such abjection? Surely something is hidden by this weakness, something is concealed by this humility. There is something mysterious in this abjection. O hidden strength: 'a man hangs on a cross and lifts the load of eternal death from the human race; a man nailed to wood looses the bonds of everlasting death that hold fast the world. O hidden power: a man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with devils, a man stretched out on the gibbet draws all men to himself. O mysterious strength: one soul coming forth from torment draws countless souls with him out of hell, a man submits to the death of the body and destroys the death of souls.

Good Lord, living Redeemer, mighty Savior, why did you conceal such power under such humility? Was it that you might deceive the devil, who by deceiving man had thrown him out of paradise? But truth deceives no one. He who is ignorant or does not believe the truth, deceives himself, and whoever sees the truth and hates or despises it, deceives himself. But truth itself deceives no one. Or was it so that the devil might deceive himself? No, even as truth deceives no one, so it does not mean anyone to deceive himself, although when it permits this it might be said to do so. You did not assume human nature to conceal what was known of yourself, but to reveal what was not known. You declared yourself to be true God; by what you did you showed yourself to be true man. The thing was itself a mystery, not made mysterious. It was not done like this so that it might be hidden, but so that it might be accomplished in the way ordained.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @ johnwmartens


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
6 years 8 months ago
A couple of days ago I heard a priest said that in the Catholic Church the crucifix is found everywhere,  whereas other Christian sects only have the cross. The reason being:  Catholics are always reminded of the suffering and death of Jesus.  We are to face squarely the horror, gruesome, cruel way he died for all of us,  only then can we truly appreciate and be grateful for His  Resurrection.   It also forces us to face our own suffering, pain and other negatives, and when they become too heavy they push/force us to cry out to God for help.  And somehow when we surrender to God, they seem lighter to bear. 
In contrast, the current secular culture does not tolerate suffering/pain of any kind.  One is to avoid it at all cost,   which is ludicrous, because pain is part of being human.  We are not taught how to face it and deal with it.  Result: suicide or medicating addiction.  Suffering/pain devoid of meaning results in the two I just mentioned.

One could say that Jesus taught us how to suffer pain.   He gave meaning to it.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

 Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Mass marking the feast of Pentecost in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 20. The pope at his "Regina Coeli" announced that he will create 14 new cardinals June 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Eleven of the new cardinals are under the age of 80 and so have the right to vote in the next conclave.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 20, 2018
Images: AP, Wikimedia Commons
Bishop Curry described Teilhard as “one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century.”
Angelo Jesus CantaMay 19, 2018
Both men were close to each other in life, and both are much revered by Pope Francis.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 19, 2018
The Gaza Nakba demonstrations this week have done nothing to advance the situation of Palestinian refugees, nor did they provide relief to the people of Gaza, who dwell in an open-air prison, hemmed in and oppressed at every turn.