THE MYSTERY OF THE CROSS
They will gaze upon the one whom they have pierced.
(Zechariah 12:10; John 19:37)
To ‘gaze upon’ Jesus on the cross demands no theological education – we can simply open ourselves to this image, and then offer our own souls back in return.
Those who ‘gaze upon’ the crucified with contemplative eyes are healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggression and victimhood. (see Things Hidden, p. 186)
The cross is an iconic symbol which clarifies the very nature of God. If God is somehow participating in human suffering (instead of passively tolerating it and observing it), that changes everything. The Christian scriptures reveal this participating God most dramatically in Jesus.
The Hebrew scriptures set the stage for Jesus: the stories of Joseph (Genesis 37:20f); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6f); Jonah (Jonah 2:1-11); and the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52-53). Clearly Jesus knew these stories and taught them to his disciples (Mark 8:31f; 9:30f; 10:32f).
Jesus is saying, in effect, “This is how evil is transformed into good!” He ‘takes away the sin of the world’ by exposing what is that sin is (sin is not violating purity codes, but ignorant attacking and violence). Jesus refuses to attack or kill in return, and shows us that we can do the same.
Jesus on the cross identifies with the human situation; he refuses to stand outside or above the human dilemma. Further, he refuses to be the scapegoater, and instead becomes the scapegoat.
And so in Jesus we find three sacred healing images: the Passover Lamb; the ‘Lifted-up One’; and the Scapegoat. In all three images we see Jesus identifying with humanity at its most critical and vulnerable level.
The Passover Lamb (Exodus 12-1-14) was something good, innocent, and even beloved. So Jesus on the cross is not an image of the death of the ‘bad’ self, but an image of the ‘good’ self. This is the ‘lamb’ that has to die: our self-image as innocent, right and sufficient. It wasn’t a ‘bad man’ who died on the cross, but a ‘good man’ – so that he could become a much larger man. So Jesus dies, and Christ rises.
The bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8) was a homeopathic image – medicine that gives you just enough of a disease so you can develop resistance and be healed from it. So the cross dramatically reveals the problem of violence – and (if we pay attention) it saves us from doing the same thing. The prophet Zechariah speaks of gazing upon the mystery of suffering: “Look upon the pierced one and mourn over him as for an only son” and then from the mourning will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1; 14:8). Today we might call this ‘grief work’ – holding the mystery of pain and looking right at it and learning deeply from it.
And so we come to Jesus as scapegoat: The third image is central to understanding the very engines of history, and to understand how Jesus resets that engine.
Human beings have always needed to find a way to deal with our anxiety and evil. We have usually turned to sacrificial systems, thinking, “blood has to be shed”. We think it is our job to destroy evil, and thus we have created systems (and religions) of exclusion and violence.
Historically, we moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, and then to various modes of self-sacrifice. Yet it was not usually our egos that we sacrificed, but our bodies instead. But it is precisely our egos that have to die – our need to be right, to be in control, to be superior.
As long as we can deal with evil by some other means than forgiveness, we will never experience the real meaning of evil and sin. We will keep projecting it over there, fearing it over there and attacking it over there.
Forgiveness is probably the only action that demands three new ‘seeings’ at the same time: (1) we must see God in the other; (2) we must find God in ourselves; and (3) we must see God as loving and merciful, not judgmental and punishing.
History has been determined by powerful people telling us whom to fear and hate. If only they had gazed upon the victim instead: Jesus exposed sin as different than we imagined, and let us know that our historic pattern of ignorant killing, attacking and blaming is in fact history’s primary illusion. Then Jesus shared with us a great participatory love, which can make it possible for us not to hate at all.
Did Jesus have to ‘die for our sins’?
The most common understanding of the crucifixion as Christ’s heroic sacrifice – paying the price for human sin – is not the only Christian theology of atonement. The Franciscan Duns Scotus (1266-1308) understood the cross as God’s utterly free initiative of love, not a payment for the sins of the world. Duns Scotus saw that God’s action is always absolutely free; therefore, Jesus was not ‘necessary’ to solve any problem created by humans – instead, Jesus was a pure and gracious declaration of God’s truth from the very beginning of creation.
The incarnation of God in Jesus gives us a living ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15f) who reconciles all things in himself, and who is the head of a cosmic body that follows after him. Jesus is the pattern for all. He does what we must also do – which is why he says, “Follow me.”
Whatever happens to Jesus must and will happen to every soul: incarnation, embodied life of ordinariness and hiddenness, initiation, trial, faith, death, surrender, resurrection and return to God. Such is the Christ-pattern that we all share in, either joyfully and trustfully (from a ‘place’ we call heaven) or unwillingly and resentfully (from a ‘place’ we call hell).
Jesus is not the afterthought, but the first thought, the distilled icon of all that God does in creation (Ephesians 2:7f). Jesus communicates this most graphically and dramatically on the cross itself. There we see and learn to trust the free offer of God’s love in a brutal yet utterly compelling image. “Self-giving love calls forth love in return.”
The trouble is that the church emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love. We ended up with a God who appears to be vindictive, violent and petty, subject to supposed laws of offended justice – and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem, instead of revealing the heart of God.
Whose mind needs changing – God’s, or ours?
Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity,
but to change the mind of humanity about God.
God is not someone we need to fear or mistrust.
Instead, God is the One we can trust above all others:
Grace, mercy and eternal generosity are the very shape of God.
Those who gaze upon the one they themselves have pierced,
those who pray from a place of needed mercy,
those who allow love to enter their hearts,
will find themselves changed from the bottom up.
cf. Things Hidden, p. 200ff