What does “the cross” mean? This phrase is a popular one in Christianity. The symbol is proudly displayed on all kinds of popular media – from clothes to album covers without any perceivable link other than marketing. The popular Evangelical meaning is, “Jesus died for my sins!” However, this has become challenged in scholarly circles and is pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. Yet, this was the phrase that defined “the cross” many of us learned growing up in church. Even in my Christian college there was little alternative to this summary, even though there was growing tension with it.
Many doubt the validity and power of the cross. Honestly, the doubts and debates are warranted. Within the Church people have been pushing back against the message that says, God punished his Son for our sins. One popular push against the popular understanding of the cross (called penal substitution) is that it is untrue and inconsistent with God’s nature. Another is that it doesn’t match the rest of the Biblical narrative. It is a very polarizing narrative. Some continue holding on to it as the only way to understand the cross, Jesus and God. Others have been completely rejecting the cross, Jesus and/or God because he is viewed as vindictive and petty.
Our reactions and thinking, and others, is not simply between us and the cross, or Jesus, or even God. Much of it has to do with the God’s people – the Church. Think how this picture this particular understanding of the cross as God’s tool against Jesus has influenced the Western Church and Christianity. For example, many describe the Church judgmental and power-hungry, which are characteristics of a violent and vindictive people and their God. Unfortunately, these characteristics naturally fit with the character of a Father who would crucifies his Son for himself. The result has been popular methods of witness to God & his story (evangelism) justifying the use of manipulation to produce fear in us and others. Honestly, they are methods characterized more by abuse, violence, and power, than love, self-emptying and humiliation.
Truly there are many factors contributing to this, but one in particular is the popular understanding of the cross. A result of this “cross-ology” (Atonement narrative) is doubt and skepticism. Popular culture has a growing skepticism toward Christianity presently, as well as its past. It is not simply outside but inside the church too. This is our world today. Many know nothing about the cross other than trite and truncated slogans. It is little more than a fashion symbol, hijacked from its meaning, depth and iconic status.The biggest loss is not that culture is skeptical and ignorant about the cross, that’s normal. No, the biggest tragedy is the loss within the Church of knowing Jesus through his cross. To begin to recover some of this we begin with ourselves. What are your doubts about the cross? How is it relevant to your life? Or was the mystery lost by Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ?
I want to affirm the gift skepticism has brought to the Church. If questions cannot be asked then we cannot discover answers and truth. The dangerous side of skepticism is when asking questions to avoid finding answers, rather than asking to find them. Jesus, God, the Church, Tradition, and the Bible can stand up to questions – good, difficult questions. There are not always easy answers, nor always clear direct answers. What we find may be simple, but it is not simplistic. Thus, when we ask about the cross, there may be more than one answer, but more than that is that there are many ways to look at. Here are a few popular, long-standing and quickly summarized ways to understand the cross.
Christus Victor/Ransom – Jesus through the cross liberated humanity from sin by overcoming Satan and evil. His life to free humanity from the bondage of sin and death culminated in a battle at the cross. Through his death and resurrection he won the decisive victory restoring all creation.
Sacrifice/Reconciliation – Jesus willingly and purposefully lived his life fully for others. Teaching and demonstrating a life in the Kingdom of God, which challenged the powers of the day. In the end, those in power chose to kill him and he gave up his life to death as a sacrifice to continue restoring/reconciling all that was lost and broken.
Example of Love – Jesus life, teachings and death are the ultimate example of love. He is a model of pure love, who did not even need to protect his own life.
Scapegoat – All societies seek to scapegoat someone to restore peace to society. An ancient practice that typically preys on the weak and vulnerable – those on the margin of society are sacrificed for the benefit of others. Jesus at the cross became the ultimate scapegoat sacrifice to end all scapegoating – as he rose from the dead to tell his own story. The victim never gets to tell their side for they never have a voice. Jesus gives a voice to all victims at the cross and through the resurrection.
New Covenant – Through the cross of Jesus a new community was freed to love, pursue justice, hospitality, and the creation of peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of creation. Prior it had focused on law and duty. The cross frees us from that.
Reconciliation – Jesus incarnation, life and death on the cross reconciled the broken relationship between the Divine and the human.
Each of these has much more depth and detail to them. Essentially, we need to see that the Jesus’ death on the cross is multi-faceted. Think of a diamond. Depending how the light interacts with it and the angle from which it is viewed changes what one sees. Like the diamond, it’s not the historical event of Jesus’ death that changed. Rather, because a cross held Jesus the historical event has an inexhaustible beauty to be seen and reflected upon anew forever. It can handle our doubts of the explanations given to us in the past, and not because it is an untrue archaic myth with no relevance for today. On the contrary, it can handle questions, because our questions are not really about a cross. It’s about who that particular cross held – God. The doubts and questions we bring to God are a reflection of us. They are equally doubts about ourselves, others and the world.
This is what Lent is about – embracing and exploring our doubts and skepticism. A popular tradition of Lent is to fast. When we fast, we discipline ourselves not in order to alleviate our guilt. We use a discipline (or a practice) to approach Jesus and the cross honestly, and openly. The fast is not to become a better person – we earn nothing through it. We journey through Lent to know Jesus through a truer awareness. Likewise, we are given a better awareness of our self, others and all creation too. This is the gift of Lent, to re-see and re-think the cross for in it we begin to see with greater clarity and truth Jesus, ourselves, others, and our world.