Why did an instrument of death become the symbol of Christianity?
Death is the greatest enigma of the human condition. All we have built up for years and years, all that is beautiful in human life, seems to go up in smoke in the space of a moment. And then, at the very centre of the Christian faith, we find the symbol of a violent death.
In fact, from the beginning, death has never been at the centre of the Gospel. Faith begins with the proclamation of a Life more powerful than death: “He is risen!” It is in the light of the resurrection that death takes its place in the Christian scheme of things.
Contemplated in this light, death changes its significance. Without confidence in a Life greater than death, human beings remain paralyzed by fear, frozen on the edge of an abyss that they dare not face directly. But by consenting to give his life for love because he was borne by the certainty of an unbreakable communion with his Father, Christ took from death its “sting” (1 Corinthians 15:55), the fear of nothingness: “by dying he freed all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
In the company of Christ, then, dying can become a language able to express the total gift of self. By his existence, Jesus taught us “the law of the wheat grain”: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This “law” applies not only to physical death. It tells us rather that the road to Life inevitably involves a letting go, a refusal to cling at all costs to what we have achieved in order to journey with God towards what lies ahead of us and what is beyond all our hopes. We bear within us a life-giving seed that remains and blossoms in spite of everything.
In this sense, the first “death” we experience is our birth, when we leave behind the haven of our mother’s womb to confront the harsh realities of existence. Then, in the history of salvation, we have the example of Abraham, called to leave the world he knows to set out on an adventure with the Lord (see Genesis 12:1-4). Later on, we find the example of the people of Israel, required to pass through the wilderness with its inevitable trials to reach the Promised Land. The cross is thus the total revelation of the true movement of life: “Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, and who loses it will keep it safe” (Luke 17:33).
Paradoxically, then, true death, in the negative sense of the term, is the refusal to risk one’s life with God. Those who wish to “preserve” or “save” their life at all costs, those who cling to what they already possess, are in danger of understanding nothing about authentic life. The cross of Christ reveals a way of dying that does not contradict the logic of life. In Christ’s company we realize that cross and resurrection are the two sides, the dark side and the bright side, of one and the same Love, of one and the same Life.
Can the sufferings of an innocent person save us?
A recent film poses this question in a dramatic way. We know that Jesus died an atrocious death. Crucifixion was one of the worst tortures of the ancient world as well as, for the Jews, a sign of God’s rejection (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). The New Testament, however, views the cross not as a failure or a condemnation, but as the instrument of our salvation (e.g. Galatians 6:14; Colossians 1:20). It is not surprising that people have always found it hard to understand how such a horrible event could have such positive consequences.
In fact, this incomprehension is rooted in a misunderstanding that needs to be brought clearly to light. For centuries, this misunderstanding has had devastating effects and has resulted in many people being unable to believe in Christ. It consists in the notion that Jesus’ suffering as such has salvific value. In other words, God the Father required this suffering, which implies that in him there is in some sense a complicity with the violence done to his only Son.
It is almost enough to formulate this thesis clearly to realize that it is not only false, but a blasphemy. If God does not wish even the wicked to suffer and die (Ezekiel 33:11), how could he take pleasure in the destruction of his beloved Son, the most innocent of all? On the contrary, we need to repeat over and over again that suffering in itself has no value in God’s eyes. Still more, to the extent that they damage what is living, pain and distress are in flagrant contradiction with a good God who wants the fullness of life for all (John 10:10).
Where does this misunderstanding come from, then? Among other things, from an overly superficial reading of biblical texts which are in fact shortcuts. This reading ignores the middle term, which is love. Only love can give life; only love can save us. If suffering has no value in itself, being more often than not destructive, there are times when, to keep on loving faithfully, we are led to accept incomprehensible suffering. The New Testament texts that seem to exalt suffering in reality celebrate the love of God which goes to the point of the total gift of self in favor of the loved one. Saint John reminds us of this in no uncertain terms when he writes, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for those one loves” (John 15:13).
In the phrase “Christ suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:21), for example, it is the “for you” that expresses the middle term, the presence of love. In his Son, God espoused the human condition to the point of taking the last place out of love; the cross is thus the expression of an absolute solidarity (see Philippians 2:6-8). And when Saint Paul writes that he shares the sufferings of Christ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 1:5; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24), he is expressing his desire, in the steps of Christ, to give himself for others without holding anything back. Because Christ took upon himself the sufferings of our condition for love, these sufferings can be lived not as a punishment that we deserve or a blind and absurd destiny, but as an encounter with Love and a road to Life.
Letter from Taizé: 2004/3