Whoever wishes to come after me
must deny himself,
take up his cross,
and follow me.
The Scandal of the Cross
The veneration of the Cross in the liturgy of Good Friday is always a moving scene. The generally big crowd, larger than the usual congregation, come up, often awkwardly, to kiss, touch, or bow before this rough memorial to a man crucified long ago. In our different ways, we who take part in this strange, sometimes barefoot, procession are witnessing to a love that has found us in the deepest and darkest areas of suffering and evil.
The parables that came from the lips of Jesus turned the ordinary world turned upside-down. His way of imagining what mattered was different. He called into question the hitherto unquestioned systems of worldly power and status. He was intent on calling his world and ours out of its desperately self-destructive ways into a universe of grace and mercy.
Behind all the parables of Jesus was the supreme parable of his life, death and resurrection. In him, the world is being made new, and the very meaning of time has changed: a transforming love was at work; life without end had begun; the world was being renewed in its youth. His resurrection shocked time into another shape. Before that event, what people most valued was always at the mercy of what they most feared. The dreadful power of evil and the finality of death held sway over the course of time.
Many with whom we share this time under the sun consider that history merely runs on, forever inconclusive and undecided. Eras of progress or decline come and go. There is no final goal. They may revere this Jesus of Nazareth one of the many good people, who despite a noble vision, were eventually found out by the harsh reality of the real world. They may even regard his resurrection, if it means anything, as just a poetic way of saying that goodness will out in the long run. A nice thought; but history remains a catalogue of horrors and defeats. The dead stay dead; and rising from the dead is no solution for the world's ills.
For Christians, the crucified and risen Christ is the light of the world, a culminating revelation. He embodied a love stronger than any death or death-dealing we know. In that light, the terrible Friday of condemnation, torture, defeat and execution is now known as the "Good Friday" - the astonishing revelation of an all-merciful love embracing the world at its darkest point. In that light the shocking scandal of this death is understood as the revelation of the transforming power of God's love.
Jesus was not the victim of a blind fate or of a capricious divine will. God, in sending his Son, was not intent on entering the world as one more earthly power. The true God was not intent on taking revenge and putting down all opposition. The God whom Jesus represented was otherwise. Who this God was, what serving this God meant, how this God valued human beings - especially those considered worthless in any social and cultural system - were questions to be answered only within the Reign of God that Jesus proclaimed.
Execution by crucifixion was employed by the Roman authorities precisely because of its obscene impact. The system would not tolerate anyone who dared to question it. As a result, the cross had to be scandal to all Jews, including the first disciples. The God they served had promised mighty works of vindication and liberation. But this? Inevitably, too, it was sheer folly to the Greeks. Their philosophy could never imagine such pitiable vulnerability on the part of the divine being who ordered the whole of cosmos. Needless to say, the imperial authorities found any suggestion that God could be identified with a criminal they had executed to be deeply subversive of the power of Rome. Yet St Paul defiantly insisted that the "foolishness of God," acting in this shameful death, was the source of all wisdom: "for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25).
While there is nothing morbid or voyeuristic as the early Christians "proclaimed the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26), there is an unflinching realism in their accounts of what took place.
The Gospel of Mark depicts the agony of Jesus as intense isolation. He is offered the cup of complete earthly failure. The world bears down on him as utterly opaque to the light of God. There is no sign of the Father's presence: "His soul began to be greatly distressed and troubled" (Mark 14:33). He falls to the ground, praying that the hour might pass. So much does he feel the infinite weight of the world's fate that Luke will add the graphic detail of the bloody sweat (Luke 22:44).
In this state of utter collapse, with his disciples asleep and the triumph of his enemies impending, he is stripped of everything except his character as Son. Nothing else remains. Even the disciples flee. This terminal moment wrings from him an act of unreserved surrender to the One from whom he came: "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me; but not what I want, but what you want" (Mark 14:36).
The Father is the God of the unlimited possibilities of love. In the Son's compassionate solidarity with all who resist evil and struggle in the cause of good, everyone is embraced by a love and mercy beyond imagination. The Kingdom will come on its own terms and in its own time. The human reality of God leads to the peace that the world cannot give: "Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 25:52)
There is more. The Gospels recall a sorry cycle of betrayal and desertion. One of Jesus's disciples, Judas, betrays him to the parties plotting for months to destroy him. They hand him over to the Jewish leaders. From the Sanhedrin he is taken to the Roman governor. Pilate passes him along to the local puppet king. Herod sends him back to Pilate. The Governor offers him to the mercy of the mob. And so, betrayed by one of his own, denied by the leader of those he had chosen to walk with him, left for lost by the rest of them, despised now by his own people, libelled by false witnesses, he is condemned in the courts of the secular and religious authorities of his time. Then, after being tortured by the police and soldiers guarding him, he is taken to be executed in the hideous manner of crucifixion.
Throughout the whole drama of Jesus's condemnation and execution, it is as though the powers of evil are defying God to reveal himself. God would not be God if the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed ended in futility. And it would be worse than failure if the Father's intention to save and forgive was changed into vengeance and some worldly power-play. To answer evil with evil - as though the law of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" guided God's own behaviour - would be the flat contradiction of all that Jesus stood for.
Yet there is no divine vengeance. Love does not turn to hatred and revenge. God is no self-serving worldly power. The Father sends no legion of angels. For the God of Jesus has refused to have any presence in the world save that of the crucified Son. And, as this Son prays for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him, he rejects any worldly identity, any worldly justification or protection, save what can be found in an ultimate mercy.
In venerating the Cross, faith remembers. It recognises Jesus as the victim of a world that barricades itself against the call of love and justice. Violence is the ultimate decider, and hope is left with nothing but what God can be and do.
In such a world, and for the salvation of such a world, God has to be revealed in a way never been known before. The God of the Cross, of self-giving love, the God of those who trust that the world can be otherwise.
Anthony Kelly, C.Ss.R., is Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. He is the author of many books, including The Resurrection Effect: Transforming Christian Life and Thought.
One Solitary Life
He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty when public opinion turned against him
He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself
He was only thirty three
His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind's progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life
Dr James Allan Francis © 1926.