Christopher Smith reflects on the power of the Cross

Just as priests shouldn’t preach about preaching, I dare say those of us who write articles for magazines shouldn’t write about writing articles for magazines.  Even so, you may as well know that there is a time lag of just over a fortnight between me writing this column and it landing on your doormat in the magazine.  17 days is a heck of a long time in the world of a new coronavirus, so I have no idea as I write what the state of play will be by the time we come into Holy Week, but at the moment, following advice from the hierarchy, we at St Alban’s Holborn have stopped administering the Chalice to the congregation and exchanging the sign of peace.  So I guess that, come Good Friday, the chances of us coming to kiss the Cross are pretty slim.  And that will be a great shame.

The veneration of the Cross on Good Friday is a mighty powerful act.  There is no mass on Good Friday, although we receive Holy Communion from the sacrament consecrated at the mass of the Lord’s Supper the previous night.  But on Good Friday, we worship the Cross of Christ: and I use that word advisedly because worship is worthship, a way of acknowledging the true worth of someone or something.  In this case, we usually do it with a kiss, of honour, not betrayal.  The power of the Cross as a symbol lies not in its function as a Roman method of executing low-life, but in the fact that one very particular person was crucified on one such instrument two thousand years ago.  And the followers, the worshippers, of that very particular crucified man took the image of this very particular instrument of shame and torture and death, and began to use it as the symbol of their faith.

And as a symbol, it has scandalised, shocked and even frightened people ever since, especially those who have reckoned followers of the crucified man to be a threat to their authority, a threat to their power.  To take but one example, allow me to quote from Neil MacGregor’s 2017 radio series, Living with the Gods, in this case on the threat perceived by a sixteenth century Japanese emperor, who had crucified twenty-six Christians at Nagasaki in 1597:

To ensure the complete eradication of the alien faith, the state went even further.  Anybody suspected of being a secret Christian was obliged – on pain of death – to appear in a nearby Buddhist temple.  There, in order to demonstrate that they were no longer part of the forbidden sect, they had publicly to abjure their faith and stamp on a small plaque carrying the sculpted image of Christ or the Virgin Mary [most usually, in fact, an image of the crucifixion].  Some of these … images have survived.  They are, I think, inexpressibly poignant.  In the history of art, they form an almost unique category: images of real quality made explicitly to be humiliated and destroyed, …worn away by the feet of those forced to desecrate them: faint remains of a faith wiped out.

What, then, is so threatening in that image of that particular man upon that particular cross?  What makes the cross so threatening in cultures where its public display is to this day illegal?  The question, of course, is not what, but Who.  Who is this crucified man depicted in these images?  The answer is simply stated in words of one syllable: God so loved the world that he gave his Son.  The Word was God.  The Word was made flesh.  And the simple doctrine of the love of God is too much for many to hear.  That simplicity should always be born in mind when we are trying to understand the theology of the Cross, the doctrine we call the Atonement.  That bit of Christian doctrine is complex, but the key to it is simple.  God so loved the world that he gave his Son.

So we know the answer to the question ‘Who?’: the only Son of the Father, the Word of God made flesh, the second Person of the Trinity who has redeemed humanity by taking it himself.  God did not choose to save the world by talking about it.  And if humanity in the abstract is redeemed by the Incarnation, so humanity in particular is redeemed on the Cross.  We see perfect humanity in the Transfigured Christ, and if redemption consisted only in the appearance on earth of a perfect human being there would be no need for either crucifixion or resurrection.  But the Cross is the proof that the work of Christ is not limited to the re-creation of human nature in one historical individual, even if that individual be God incarnate.  Christ, by his perfect obedience and love, challenged and overcame the very forces to which man had succumbed to redeem the flesh and blood that did in Adam fail.

And there is the truth behind that ‘paying the price’ that we use as a transactional shorthand for something much more profound.  As Eric Mascall once said, ‘The Atonement has of course sometimes been depicted in crude and barbarous terms, yet it is striking how both the crudity and the barbarity vanish once it is remembered that the Christ who died is both God and man.  There is then no opposition between priest and victim, for priest and victim are one.’  

If, for our redemption, it was necessary for humanity to be taken on by God himself, so too it was necessary for that having-been-taken humanity to be sacrificed, to be given-over, given back, to God.  The question for us, then, is whether we are prepared to bear the fruit of that sacrifice.  For that will require some sacrifice on our part too.