Why the Cross?
Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson, Bishop of Yakima
Peace be with you! Why the cross? Why reverence the cross? Why the brutal and bloody death of Jesus on the cross? In light of this death why even call this Friday, “Good” Friday? Succinctly put, the answer can be summarized in one word: forgiveness.
In his book, “Seven Last Words” Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe notes that forgiveness comes before the crucifixion. It comes before the ironically true proclamation of Pontius Pilate nailed atop the cross: Here is the king of the Jews! “Forgiveness always comes first,” says Fr. Radcliffe and then he cites the famous passage from the Gospel of St. Luke prior to the crucifixion of Christ: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness comes first!
How different from the way we think. We think that forgiveness comes after the offense. If you and I are really honest with ourselves and our interior ruminations we often reflect on our lives gazing through the other end of the telescope – magnifying – not our sins – but the sins of others against us. We harbor grudges. We nurse resentments. We start our interior examination with a list – not of the wrongs we’ve done to others – but the wrongs done to us. Ours is the attitude captured by the famous English poet William Blake when he penned these lines:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
That image of William Blake – “My foe outstretched beneath the tree” – is a direct reference to the crucifixion of Christ. Tradition language often cites that Christ was nailed to a “tree” – the cross of death being a dead tree – and what Blake wants us to grasp is that we – all of us here tonight – are complicit in the death of Christ most especially because of our own lack of forgiveness, our own “watering” and “sunning” of our resentments, our own refusal to let go of past harms, wrongs we have suffered and injuries done to us.
When we fail to begin the passion of our daily life with “forgiveness” – literally giving forth to God the harm done to us – then we slowly kill off a place for Christ to dwell in our hearts. No wonder, then, that when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray he includes this petition in His – the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“This petition is astonishing….” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “…the outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us.” Then the catechism concludes its comment on this petition of the Lord’s pray by noting: “Love like the Body of Christ is indivisible.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2838-40)
So why reverence the cross? We adore, reverence and venerate the cross – not because the bloody death of Christ is good – but because his death – unlike other human deaths – is not the end. No! It’s just the opposite! The outpouring of mercy and forgiveness that flows from the death of Christ on the cross marks a beginning – the beginning of new life on earth and the pathway to eternal life in heaven. Unlike all the other crucifixions of the ancient Middle East where death is the end: this crucifixion points to life, eternal life, the eternal life of Easter, the Easter resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection with Christ at the end of time.
Do you believe this? Do you believe in the power of Christ’s cross? Do you believe in its power to save you? Allow me to suggest tonight that as we reverence the cross we consciously place our resentments, our past injuries, our angers and the many ways we believe we have been harmed onto this cross acknowledging – in the words of the introduction to the Church’s Rite of Penance – that God is the source of all forgiveness – and that this forgiveness is not something we manufacture on our own. Let us place on the cross of Christ all harms from the past ever done to us, thus allowing forgiveness to become the starting point all the passions and all the trials of our daily lives too. Peace be with you!
Artwork: Russian icon with 5 themes. Fragment: Good Felon enters in Heaven, 17th Century.