The scandalous message of the cross
Once when I was a teenager an evangelical friend asked me why we Catholics put so much emphasis on the cross, since this is the main symbol of the Church, after all we use the cross from the top of the church building to the small necklaces, for the most devout. He further said that as Christians we should announce the victory of the resurrection, which overcomes the failure of the cross.
Obviously, this particular position does not represent the general position of evangelicals, nor could it be, considering the diversity of theological lines between Protestant denominations. Anyway, this little event was marked in my memory, as well as my reaction of not knowing how to answer at the moment, a little by lack of preparation, but mainly by timidity.
It is a fact that the message of the cross continues to be a stumbling block and a cause of scandal for many. Obviously, the cross, as a religious symbol, has become extremely common, not to say vulgar, in the West. For stylistic purposes, anyone can hang a cross on their necks or use them as other forms of paraphernalia, without the individual necessarily sharing the Christian faith. With that, the symbol itself lost some of the original meaning that Christianity associated with it. But a careful rereading of the New Testament writings is enough to realize how rich the message of the cross is.
The Bible as a whole, from the Prophets to the apostles of the New Testament, often expresses a constant counterpoint between human logic and divine logic in regard to the plan of salvation of the people of Israel. Prophets raised by God to proclaim His Word do not usually follow the status quo, and on the contrary, they are the first to denounce those in power because they too often become self-sufficient and forget that the true King of Israel is Yhwh. Hence begins a sequence of elements that show the discrepancy between the divine plan and human planes: the king of Israel is anointed to actually be an example of servitude (to the Lord); At the same time, servitude to the Lord means deliverance from slavery (from Egypt); While the people fear the yoke of the neighboring peoples (Assyria, Babylon, Persia), the prophet announces that the yoke of God is what, in fact, should be the fear of Israel.
In the New Testament, God’s unpredictable way of acting already begins with the birth of the Savior in a manger. The expected Messiah unexpectedly finds himself in someone whose central message does not imply the violent rebellion suggested by the Zealots, or the claim to a Davidic succession of a kingdom that would bring about independence and re-establish Israel’s national identity. The Anointed of God is more concerned with those who are on the sidelines: the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the leper and the poor. His true treasure is not found in palaces or in the restoration of stone temples, but “where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:20). All these unexpected elements of the teachings of Jesus are for some cause of scandal and blasphemy and for others, a reason for admiration and contemplation. It is a fact that someone who has had a life subject to so many controversies would end up inevitably out of the ordinary: the “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was crucified on a cross. This ironic title written on the cross would be only the beginning of successive speculations on the symbol that would become “foolishness to the wicked and wisdom to God.”
Paul brilliantly perceives the true message of this controversial symbol. What for many is the culminating demonstration of the failure of a false king-messiah, for Paul is the very throne to which Jesus is raised (cf. Colossians 2:15). In this perspective, failure turns into victory, subservience turns into dominance, madness turns into wisdom and death turns into life.
In fact, the victory of the cross only makes sense after the resurrection. Dying on the cross (as many others died under the rule of the Roman Empire) does not make Jesus an extraordinary being. The piety of the faithful before the cross can not be based purely on a sentimental commotion in the face of the death of an innocent man, because every day there are innocent people dying and, in this logic, they deserve equal devotion. What makes Jesus extraordinary is the posthumous event of the resurrection, where death did not have the final answer. In fact, on the third day God once again acts unexpectedly, revealing yet another level of his plan of salvation. When no one expected, not even the nearest disciples, Jesus rises giving new and vigorous meaning to what seemed the final and disastrous process of the life of a false Messiah.
The most beautiful of all this is to realize that these unexpected actions of God in the course of Israel’s history are not simply the attitudes of a divine being who, by pure playful and sadistic spirit, resolves once and again to surprise and scandalize his chosen people. An attentive reading of the prophetic texts will make us realize that divine intervention in the history of the Hebrew people is only unexpected when the people did not know how to correctly interpret the Scriptures. In this way, Babylonian exile can mean to some the helplessness and forgetfulness of God, but to the prophet, on the contrary, God is intervening in the history of his people to rebuke and purify it from idolatry (cf. Jeremiah 32: 28-30), for the covenant established at Sinai supposed total fidelity to one Lord and to worship other gods means to break this covenant.
The entire New Testament, with its numerous references to the Torah, is an explicit demonstration that the event Jesus is nothing more than the realization of the prophecies previously announced to the people of the Bible, and actually, those who have scandalized and rejected Him, were not sensitive enough to understand what the prophets announced. This sensitivity is more than a detailed study of the text. It is, in fact, a predisposition of the humble servant who asks the Lord for the divine wisdom to understand his Word, for “who can know your counsel, unless you give Wisdom and send your holy spirit from on high?” (Wis 9:17) . With that, the followers of Christ who witnessed the resurrection, immediately realized that the cross was not simply a “mishap”, but a necessary step in the process of redemption, for it is through death that Jesus conquers death and brings Eternal life.
In this way, unlike my evangelical friend aimed, the resurrection has not annulled the cross, but on the contrary, it has proved its effectiveness. The cross itself signifies nothing but failure and death, but the resurrection has given new meaning to the cross and exalted it as a necessary way to Christ’s victory. That is why every Christian must embrace his cross in order to attain, one day, eternal life.
Although the resurrection confirms, clarifies and gives meaning to the crucified Christ, the cross remains a mystery and a scandal outside and inside the Church. To the unbeliever of the resurrection, the cross is scandal because it suggests the worship of a dead god, that is, so absurd is a god that dies, as it is the worship of his dead body. To Christians, in turn, the cross is scandal because it provokes a reaction in their conscience, it denounces the apex of the cruelty of the human being who kills his own redeemer and ignores the visit of his Savior.
It is important to emphasize that the mysteries of the life of Christ have a theological value that goes beyond the notion of time and space. In this sense, both the cause and the effect of the crucifixion should not be related to a limited religious group that lived two millennia in the Middle East, but all humanity is involved, for Jesus died on the cross for the salvation of all mankind (Cf. 2Cor 5: 14-15). Now, if all humanity participates in the redemptive power of the cross, it is also the whole of humanity that, in a certain way, is responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
In this perspective, where the cross goes beyond the limits of history, becoming a cosmic-theological reality, I, a 21st-century Christian, must present myself before the crucified Jesus not as one who understood the message that the contemporary Jews of Christ’s times would have ignored, but as the one who has the grace to be able to see reflected in the cross the misery of his own sins and their consequences (death, injustice, presumption and lack of love). It is in this sense that the cross becomes a scandal for the Christian. While the unbeliever is scandalized because he only sees on the cross useless failure and death, the Christian is scandalized because he sees reflected there his own faults, necessary and effective step to recognize himself sinful and to make the continuous process of conversion.
written by Br. Joel Moreira, NDS.