14 September 2021, The Tablet

The 'joy and woe' of taking up the Cross of Christ

A Sermon for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 24B | 12 September 2021

The 'joy and woe' of taking up the Cross of Christ

Take up your cross.
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

Gospel passages like this that speak of and “taking up your cross” and “losing your life” convinced Nietzsche (1844-1900) that Christianity is a life-hating, death-welcoming, dangerously pernicious creed. But his view was far from original. It was, for instance, the reaction of many cultured and educated Romans in the earliest days of the Church’s life.

The first extant pagan reference to Christianity is in an official letter addressed to the emperor, Trajan, by Pliny the Younger (61-113AD), while governor of Bithynia. He had concluded from his torture and interrogation of two Christian slave-girls that members of this new sect must be suffering from a form of madness (amentia). The Roman historian, Tacitus (c56- 120AD), a close friend and colleague of Pliny, agreed: Christianity, he said, is a “deadly superstition”, offensive to true religion and civilised existence. Christians, he avers, are haters of humankind.

Suetonius (c69-c122AD) agreed, calling Christianity “a mischievous fantasy”. No belief convinced them of this view more than the fact that Christians worshipped a crucified God. Not only was this a repulsive and abhorrent idea, utterly incompatible with the whole ethos of religion in the ancient world, but it was an absurd notion, an oxymoron, something that was, quite literally, unbelievable to an educated mind, serving to clinch their conviction that Christianity was as surd irrationality. Given the world into which Christianity first came, this was an understandable reaction. After all, the very word for cross in Greek – σταυρ?ς – instilled fear and loathing: it was used as a swear word, an insult, a jibe, a tasteless threat. And you can see why: crucifixion was the most wretched and painful form of execution imaginable, a slow death by asphyxiation, quite apart from the brutal wounds inflicted in the process of crucifying the unfortunate person.

Little wonder that Cicero speaks of it as “the most cruel and disgusting penalty” – crudelissimum taetumque supplicium. But it was also regarded universally as utterly shameful, reserved for slaves, non-citizens and the low-born. This was especially the case for Jews. Quite apart from the appalling agony of crucifixion, it carried with it the unthinkable indignity of being displayed naked. To add a further layer of horror, the bodies of the crucified were rarely buried: more usually they were left as carrion for wild animals. Hence the generosity of Pilate’s allowing Jesus’s body to be removed from the cross.

No wonder, then, that Peter recoils from the suggestion that such suffering should be the lot of the Messiah. Now much of this is inevitably lost on us. With time and habituation, our sense of the horror of the cross has been dulled. We”re no longer shocked or moved by the sight of the crucifix: we wear them round our necks, we have them on our walls and in our churches. For us, a whole tradition of popular piety has had the effect of domesticating the cross: which is why most of us assume that Jesus is using a metaphor when he speaks of taking up our cross and following him.

We think first and foremost of our “daily crosses”, rather than the cross of execution. It was for this reason that the great Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), deliberately placed his desk below a reproduction of the gruesome Gründewald crucifixion, precisely to keep fresh in his mind and, indeed, in his work, what crucifixion really meant. But no one among those who first heard this gospel could possibly have thought Jesus was speaking metaphorically when he said that we must take up our cross. Criminals routinely carried the crossbeam to the place of execution.

Remember, he says this immediately after predicting his own death: so, picking up your cross and following, referred concretely to what was about to happen to him. By way of explication, he goes on to enunciate the central paradox of Christianity: “Whoever would save his life, will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, will save it.” You can”t truly embrace or live a full life, he’s saying, unless you accept death.

And Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s understandable rebuke makes it clear that this is nonnegotiable. If you set yourself to find in this life a sufferingfree zone, you’ll end up forfeiting what matters most. If you seek to make yourself invulnerable, you’ll never know delight, gratitude, joy and, above all, love. The only way to avoid vulnerability to personal pain is to avoid all human ties and commitments, regarded by many, under the guise of some false ideal of detachment, as an ideal. But that is the Stoic 4 path of apathy – απ?θεια − literally, the inability to suffer: a noble path, but not the Christian path.

It takes little experience to realise that our lives are enriched by beauty but circumscribed by frailty, that we are made, in William Blake’s words, “for Joy and Woe”.  That, of course, goes against the grain of world that’s dominated by the desire to deny and flee limitations, finitude, ageing and, above all else, death. The problem is that the more fearfully we flee limitations, weakness, and ultimately death, the more intolerant and less compassionate we become. Compassion and realism are uncomfortably close. It is one of the most liberating of all revelations to realise that those things of which we”re most intolerant in others are precisely the things we dislike most about ourselves. (When you find yourself irritated by someone, especially the people closest to you, write down all the things you find difficult about that person. Before filling half a page, you’ll discover that you”re penning a self-portrait: you will have listed all your own failings, which you don”t admit even to yourself.)

The cross may have become for us a religious symbol, but the actual Cross of Christ is God’s revelation of himself in an act of utterly unselfish love. In the Cross, we see God, who as a direct consequence of becoming one of us, endured the unspeakable cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. But, in doing so, he decisively broke the remorselessly infernal cycle by which victims go on to become victimisers, by which the persecuted become the persecutors. Only Love Itself, God, could free us from the self-destructive spiral we call “sin”. Only divine love, now humanly visible in Christ, could have done that; and once done, it can never be undone.

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