Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Holy Cross Day - Thursday September 14,2017
|Robert James Magliula|
In 1098 St. Anselm wrote his treatise Why Did God Become Human? In it he posited the first systematic articulation of the Cross as payment for sin. His purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the Incarnation and death of Jesus. He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, compensation must be made. He then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price for sin must be paid. Jesus as a human, who was also divine, and thus without sin, paid the price.
A few hundred years later, in response to this theory, John Duns Scotus said that Jesus wasn’t solving any problems by coming to earth and dying. Blood atonement was never required for God to love us. The great mystery of Incarnation was not a problem-solving technique, or dependent on human beings messing up. The Incarnation was motivated by love. God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation. The Cross was to change humanity, not a necessary transaction to change God. The Cross was a pure gift so that humanity could witness God’s love. Even though Anselm’s theory of atonement was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity, it became the primary lens through which the Cross, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Testament were read. This violent theory of redemption legitimated punitive and violent problem solving all the way down to our own day.
For all authentic spiritual teachers, their message is the same as their life; their life is their message. This strong emphasis on being saved by Jesus’ death allowed us to largely ignore Jesus’ way of life. All we really needed Jesus for was the last three days or three hours of his life. We still resist seeing the Cross as the pattern for life and a path for our own liberation. If we would imitate Jesus in practical ways, our consciousness would move toward love, nonviolence, justice, and inclusivity. Immature religion actually stalls people at early stages of magical and tribal consciousness, while convincing them that they are enlightened or saved. We generally prefer heavenly transactions to our own transformation.
The way of the Cross looks like failure. In fact, you could say that the Cross is about how to win by losing, how to let go creatively, how the only real ascent is descent. On the Cross, Jesus came to give us the courage to trust and live into the divine within us. He modeled it for us in his life and death.
The cross validates the centrality of paradox at the heart of Christianity. There is a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd but neither is it perfectly consistent. Reality is filled with contradictions, and so are we. Our faith is not a belief that dogmas or moral opinions are true, but a trust that God is accessible to us—and even on our side. Jesus was able to touch and heal people who trusted him as an emissary of God’s love, not people who assessed intellectual statements and decided whether they were true or false. Rational certitude is exactly what the Scriptures do not offer us. They offer us something much better: an intimate relationship, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness are absolutely necessary for survival in an uncertain world. God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. We are all participating—with varying degrees of resistance and consent—in the faith journey that Jesus has already walked. All we can do is make what is objectively true fully conscious for us.
Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of suffering and not to demand perfection of creation.
Those who hold the contradictions—and try to resolve them in themselves—become agents of transformation and reconciliation. The insistence on the perfect is often the enemy of the practical and good. Perfectionism becomes angry righteousness. It contributes to intolerance and judgmentalism. In society, it creates ideologies that tolerate no compromise or ability to negotiate. We must try to be peace and do justice, but not expect to find perfection in ourselves or in the world. Jesus was a realist; he was patient with the ordinary, the broken, the weak, and those who failed. Following him is not a means of creating some ideal social order as much as it is a vocation to love the way that God loves.
To bear the mystery of the cross is to agree to find God in a clearly imperfect world. Unfortunately, we would much sooner have order and control. Most prefer beliefs, dogma and perfect objective morality to biblical faith, because certitude allows us to predict and control outcomes, and to justify rewards and punishments. That is not the message of the Cross or the Gospel.
The only things strong enough to break open the heart are things like pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general unpredictability of life. Life itself will lead us to the edge of our own resources through such events. This reality was brought home to me again and again in our work in South Africa. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix, or control, or understand. That’s where faith begins. We hear it when Jesus called out on the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and then totally surrendered into the hands of the living God.
The Cross embodies the way of descent and mature spirituality leads us to enter willingly, into the dark periods of life. Transformative power is discovered in the dark—in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers. Our cultural instincts and ego prompt us to try to fix or change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and if we are honest, some days without meaning. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness. It seems some form of absence always needs to precede any deepening experience of presence. Desire makes way for depth.
Thomas Merton expressed the doubt and uncertainty we all face in this familiar prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.