Christianity and the Cross
I am not born to suffer or in our contemporary parlance and chorusing we say or sing: “Me I no go suffer – I no go beg for food!” What is the mentality that informs this kind of understanding? It is the modern man’s worldview of Christianity without a cross. The event of the cross is a sign of weakness on the part of Jesus and by extension a colossal contradiction! Again the modern man is working tirelessly to avert every form of pain because suffering is not his portion. On the other hand there is the point of view of serious Christians not to experience sickness, difficulties/challenges, disappointments/failures, etc. The foregoing, implicatively demonstrates that such Christians are not in the Spirit or “born again.” Where is the place of the saying: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine let him renounce himself and take up his cross everyday and follow me. (?)” (Lk 9:23) The big question is: can there be true Christianity without the cross? Here lies our main preoccupation in this piece.
WHO IS A CHRISTIAN?
Before we come to draw a nexus between Christianity and the cross let us begin with ourselves by recognising our identity because if we know a bit about ourselves the problem may be half solved. The question before us looks simple, hence it is almost always trivialised. But in this context it is a serious issue and should be treated as such. A Christian is one who is committed to Love God and man. According to Pope Benedict XVI “Being a Christian means having love; it means achieving the Copernican Revolution in our existence, by which we cease to make ourselves the centre of the universe, with everyone else revolving around us.” The Apostle of Jesus demonstrated the Love of God and Jesus in their early Church activities and their identity became obvious to the point that they were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26) because they were exhibiting the goodness of God in the course of their preaching and spreading of the message of Christ Jesus who is the initiator of the Love they embraced, understood and evangelised the early Church.
So, the term Christian flows from Christ like manifestation of the early Christian community. If this is the case it means a Christian is one who imitates Christ. When it comes to following Christ, there is no room for half – measure followership. One is expected to take up his cross and follow Jesus. Thus, He leads while we diligently follow His footstep. But we are falling short of the basic requirement of the Christian calling that is the cross. Therefore, to be qualified as Christians we need to bear the name Christians in the complete and strict sense of it. That is we need to happily recognise our cross like character, appreciate it and gladly embrace its challenges which no doubt would lead us to glory in Christ now and in the life to come.
THE IDENTITY OF JESUS
Having exposed our identity, it is pertinent to highlight that of our Lord Jesus Christ. He asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of man is? And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the Prophets,’” Is He a prophet? Yes He is. But does His prophetic office fully define His identity? Note there were many prophets before him and after him. For instance in Islam He is respected as a great prophet but not the Son of God. Certainly the answer is: No! Therefore the discussion continues, “‘But you’, He said ‘who do you say I am? …Simon Peter spoke up and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Again is this enough? Wait shortly and see how the Apostle Peter falls short of fully grasping the identity of Jesus. This shortcoming of ancient days replays in our contemporary era – the rejection of suffering by Peter. This Son of God what is His mission? It is His manifestation of the Love of God through the highest excruciating means – the cross, which would lead to the restoration of the glory of man that was thwarted by the Devil, sin and its agencies. How was He to accomplish the great expectation? Through the cross! Accordingly, “…Jesus began to make it clear to His disciples that He was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.” (Matt. 16:21) Was Peter comfortable with this characteristic of Jesus’ identity? Obviously not! Hence, “…taking (Jesus) aside, Peter started to rebuke Him. ‘God forbid, Lord,’ he said, ‘this must not happen to you.’ ‘But (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do.’” (Matt. 16:22-23).
Yes Jesus has revealed His identity as the Son of God and a suffering Messiah. But a question still remains: did Jesus the Son of God suffer? The Evangelist John states; “They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying His own cross He went out to the place of the skull or, as it is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him with two others,…” (Jn. 19:16-18)
NO TRUE CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT THE CROSS
It follows that we cannot divorce the cross from true or authentic Christianity. More so, Jesus says that a disciple is not greater than His Master or Teacher. The Master went through the cross and we ought to emulate the Master in all facets of His life. Listen to the prerequisite for true discipleship of Jesus; the Master says: “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:38) The life of the cross is the chief object of our salvation that we must not underemphasise. It is on this note that we have to accept and appreciate the cross as a distinctive feature of the Christian way of life.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, asserts that many of the misunderstanding between the Church and today’s society emanates from the incomprehensibility of the mystery of the cross by the secular world. So, he states that “The point we have in common is the realisation that in this life, pleasure and pain follow one another with the same regularity as a trough follows the swell of an ocean wave. …Pleasure and suffering are inextricably linked to one another.”
It must be stated clearly that the Lord is not equating the cross with pleasure. The cross is eternal because the Lord Jesus has perfected it and it has become a special way to cultivate in order to attain happiness which is the chief good meant for man by God. But pleasure is limited and most times misleading; this being the case, the cross or suffering is meant to regulate us especially our perverted nature. The cross in our daily lives also serves as an instructional material to make other realities of life meaningful even went they seem to be meaningless in our limited senses and application of reason. Again, if we accept the cross completely we shall be full of the presence of the Divine and the world will change for good. Today man is almost empty of God because he is not ready to pay the price for the cross by living a life in accordance with the will of God, consequently there are multifarious problems militating against his happiness. On the other hand if man is ready to accommodate the rule of the cross, things will surely fall in shape and life will be worth living. The suffering Son of God our greatest Teacher of the way exemplified the quintessence of the cross in the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; “My Father, He said, ‘if this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, your will be done!” (Matt. 26:44) That should be our disposition and attitude to life that is seeking the will of God in all things. The cross is a very good divine agency to enable us achieve our goal in life. Fr Cantalamessa beautifully draws a nexus between the cross and pleasure and elucidates the will of God and the cross in the following; “The will of God is the ‘cross of pleasure.’ But if you should fall again, if you are not ready to accept the whole of God’s will at once, remember that the cross is also a promise of forgiveness and mercy for those who fall. You are not expected to destroy yourself with guilt.”
What is your cross? What form of suffering are you experiencing? Or what kind of pleasure is dominating your life? Have you devotion for pleasure that has resulted in hedonism? The truth is that there is no room for seeing one aspect as against the other. Joy and pleasure are the fruits that flow from the respect and application of the tenets of suffering. The Lord is king from eternity but on earth the Jews disputed that. But it was while He was hanging on the cross that they recognise Him as a king – “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” (Jn 19:19) We need a new understanding about the crosses of our lives. So, just as Jesus turned the mentality of the cross from the ancient perspective of condemnation and malediction to hope, glory, victory and Easter we should also unveil our crosses in our hearts, appreciate them in the light of St. Paul by boasting about nothing but the cross of Christ that has changed the whole wide world. (Gal. 6:14) Moreover, St. Paul says; “It makes me happy to be suffering for you now and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church…”
Rev. Fr. John-Mary ATEP