There’s an old chorus our youth group liked to sing during youth meetings called “Lift Him Up.” It goes something like this: “Lift Him Up, Lift Him Up, Lift the Name of Jesus Higher. Lift Him Up. Raise His Banner to the sky. He said ‘If I be Lifted Up, I will draw all men unto Me.’ Lift Him Up, all you people, Lift Him up.”
Neat words and a catchy tune, but one problem (actually more than one, but we simply don’t have the time!): When the Lord said “If I be lifted up…” He meant His crucifixion and the chorus seems to miss that point altogether. In fact, it reminds me of an old saying I heard many years ago attributed to H. Richard Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
It seems our modern version of Faith is very much like other attempts to “tame” the Faith in the past. We, humans, want to avoid the “messy” parts and get to the payoff without the pain.
And it never works.
Look at John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30. In this passage we read about the crucifixion of the Lord; the moment when the Son of God enters into the Final Battle with sin, death, and Satan. The last part of the passage is filled with beauty, pain, and insight:
But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. Then when Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
This central message of Christ going to the Cross for our salvation is a message that history shows humanity has tried to either dismiss, diminish, or deny. The Jews of the Lord’s day said He couldn’t have been the Messiah because of the shameful way He died. Later Muslim theologians would insist that Jesus didn’t die on the Cross at all; instead, it was, through a miracle, that Judas was substituted on the cross instead of the Lord. And in our own modern ages, there are those who run the gambit of denying Jesus even existed to actual theologians (so-called) who insist that the crucifixion of the Lord proved He was a failure.
What motivates such a wide range of reactions to the Cross of Jesus? Well, I’m sure there are many. But the main motivations are Shame, Pride, Hatred, and Fear. Shame, in the sense that if Christ was truly the Son of God then we humans are perpetrators of the greatest crime in history! The crucifixion of Christ displays for all to see the depths of the ugliness of humanity without a life-giving relationship with God. Pride, in the sense that we humans arrogantly turn away from our own responsibility for the darkness in the world. Hatred, in the sense that we humans hate having the mirror of selfless Love held before us and see the depths of our own spiritual need. And Fear because the fear of our own mortality drives most (if not all) of our self-centered choices. Our fear of death poisons our ability to take on an eternal perspective. But Jesus, by entering into death, even death on a cross, destroys death BY death!
But the good news is that the Cross isn’t the end of the story. If it were then this would be just another tragic morality tale told to get us to shape up our behavior. But the Resurrection places the Cross in the Light of victorious LIFE, and that changes everything.
Today, let’s abandon the fruitless attempts to take the “sting” out of the Orthodox Christian message. Let’s face the ugliness of the Cross with the Resurrection in mind and forever understand that God loves us so much that He destroyed “death BY death.” In the Cross we see God taking the ugliest of human weaknesses and destroying everything that keeps in in that horrid prison. It’s the Cross that makes us Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Today, O Lord, we sing “Save, O Lord, Your People, and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory to the Faith against the adversaries of the Faith. And protect Your People by Your Holy Cross!” Grant us to embrace the wisdom and joy of the death of death THROUGH Your suffering and death and resurrection and ascension and glorious coming again! And give us the grace to carry our own cross to the place where we die to death and all that death enslaves us to and makes us less than what we were created for: Life more abundant. Amen