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Evading the Cross 

by James Hitchcock
April 10, 2003

I once heard a Good Friday sermon that offered a unique explanation of the death of Our Lord. Jesus came to earth, the priest said, in order to set things right. After a time He realized that He had accomplished all that He could and that it was time to leave. The lesson of Good Friday was that we too should recognize when we have done all that we can, and we should then put the rest in God's hands.

I think that moral lesson is a dubious one, since most of us are inclined to excuse ourselves from effort rather than to try too hard. This explanation of Jesus' mission also raises unanswerable questions. One might think that, if Jesus came to change the world, three years was not enough time to give it a good try. And if He simply wanted to return to the Father, why did it have to be in such a brutal way?

The motives for the sermon were evident. On Good Friday it was necessary to preach about the cross, and this particular priest found it a daunting subject.

Saint Paul said that the cross is a stumbling block to both the Jews and the Greeks, which means to everyone. The apostles were traumatized by the unanticipated fate of their Lord, and it must have been tempting to treat the crucifixion as some kind of terrible mishap to be forgotten in the light of Jesus' inspiring teachings. Instead, from the beginning Christians placed the cross at the center of their preaching of the Gospel. Anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus had to come to terms with this instrument of shame and torture. They were not offered a sanitized version of Jesus' death.

This Lent I read in a parish bulletin another priest's explanation of the meaning of the cross, which apparently lies merely in its shape. Jesus is in the middle, with branches going in four directions. The significance of this is that Jesus is always drawing us back to "the center", when we have strayed too far in one direction or another. The priest did not explain what "too far" meant, but apparently the symbolism of the cross is that we are supposed to be "middle of the road" in all our beliefs.

Once again a question cries out for an answer -- if that is the meaning of the cross, why was it necessary for Jesus to be scourged and to hang on the cross in agony for three hours, something that seems quite "extreme"?

In another parish bulletin I read Lenten advice that included "appreciate a sunset, take a different way home from work that is more scenic, find a reason to belly laugh once a day, do yoga". Parishioners were urged to ask themselves, several times a day, "What do I want?" and "How am I feeling?"

I cannot for the life of me see what any of these things have to do with Lent. The advice seems to be based on the assumption that most of us are too hard on ourselves and that Lent should be a time when we indulge our feelings a little more, the exact opposite of what Lent traditionally was supposed to mean.

It is now common to say that Lent is not a time of "negativity", but that is precisely what it is supposed to be, because of its intimate link to the cross. The reason some people recoil from ideas of penance and self-denial is precisely because they recoil from the cross. It remains the central symbol of our faith, but some people then find it necessary to tie themselves up in knots finding ways to obliterate its terrible significance.

Another common way of explaining it away is to say that Jesus was mistakenly thought to be a subversive character and that His death was a terrible misunderstanding, an explanation which trivializes His life and death.

The cross makes us uncomfortable precisely because of our sinfulness, which is the very reason why we should engage in "negative" activities of self-denial. There is a strong urge to explain the cross away because to embrace it would require full acknowledgement of ourselves as sinners.

We are sinners, and Christ died in order to save us. This traditional orthodox explanation, far from being merely an abstract dogma, and far from being a "negative" idea, is finally the only thing that allows us both to acknowledge the horror of the cross and to see it as a symbol of hope.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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