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Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
The Sign of Salvation
Consider the Cross. Had I been pressed into suggesting a symbol of the salvation wrought for all of humankind through the death and rising of Jesus, the Cross would not have been on my short list. Perhaps a dove, flying upward to the sky, untethered and free to soar. . . ? Perhaps a flower in full bloom. . . ? Perhaps a boat moored safely in a serene harbor after a long and treacherous journey. . . ? Perhaps a door opened wide with welcome. . . ? But a Cross??
Every year during this sacred week, the Church invites us to consider once again, the meaning of the Cross. With each passing year we are to bring to our considerations an understanding and acceptance proportionate to the depth and growth of our faith during the year which has passed. What each of us brings this year is known only to ourselves and to the one who has given us the mystery of his Cross to consider.
Found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures where it has a cosmic or natural significance, the two crossed lines of unequal length symbolize the four dimensions of the universe. In both primitive and advanced civilizations and in places as widespread as India and Peru, the cross was regarded as a sign of power, and regeneration. These natural, cosmic significations of the cross are not abrogated but rather deepened and purified by the development of Christian symbolism. (J. H. Miller, Cross, New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.: 1981).
Until the fifth century C.E., the early Christians generally avoided representing the Cross with the body of Jesus; in fact even bare crosses were rarely depicted until the fourth century C.E. As J. H. Miller (op. cit.) explained, there were many reasons for the churchs reluctance to openly represent the cross as its symbol. For many Jews and gentiles, the cross underscored the seemingly irreconcilable contradiction of Christian belief, viz. that a crucified man could also be God. As various early heresies attacked either the divinity or humanity of Christ, the symbol of the cross, which seemed to exacerbate the conflict, was avoided. Ironically, the oldest known representation of the crucified Christ is a graffiti which a pagan artist scratched on one of the Roman Palatine buildings: this blasphemous second century C.E. cartoon depicted a man with an asss head on a cross, while another man stands in adoration. The caption, Alexamenos worships his god, is still legible. Not until the fourth century (during the reign of Constantine) did the cross begin to appear everywhere in public places as the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity. Despite the frequency of its representation in Christian art and architecture, the cross remains an ambivalent symbol. In its crossbeams meet death and life, sin and salvation, conquest and victory, immanence and transcendence. The cross represents both the basest aspects of the human condition and the most sublime reflection of divinity.
As Karl Rahner once explained, the cross of the Lord is the revelation of what sin really is. The cross of Christ mercilessly reveals what the world hides from itself: that it, as it were, devours the Son of God in the insane blindness of its sin -- a sin which Godless hate is truly set on fire upon contact with the love of God (The Content of Faith, Crossroad Press, New York: 1992).
As we consider the Cross, we see the truth, of who we are without God juxtaposed with the love of him who: (1) sent his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16); (2) showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8); (3) was lifted up so as to draw all people to himself (John 12:32).
As the dual revelation of the sinfulness of humanity and the love of God, the cross is unparalleled. To accept Jesus challenge to take up our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23) involves a simultaneous acknowledgement of our desperate need for salvation and a celebration of his loving overtures to the sinful. Consider the cross. . . it is at once sin and love bound together by the contradiction that in his death there is life; in his seeming failure there is triumph, and what appeared to be the end of one mans journey is but the beginning of the universal homecoming of humanity.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the Russian-born Jewish artist, frequently chose religious subjects and themes for his work. In one of his paintings, Chagall attempted to incorporate the Christian understanding of salvation into the long history of Jewish suffering and persecution; he represented Jesus as a crucified figure, clothed in a prayer shawl and wearing phylacteries, against a background of scenes from the various pogroms and expulsions endured by the Jewish people. Although he used words rather than paints and canvas, the author of todays first reading offered his contemporaries a similar image of one who had so selflessly involved himself in the welfare of his people that he found himself the victim of scorn and abuse.
Written sometime during the prophetic tenure of Deutero-Isaiah (unnamed sixth century B.C.E. prophet responsible for Isaiah 40-55), there are four so-called suffering servant songs (40:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), each of which portrayed the antithesis of Israels messianic expectations. Most anticipated the reign of their long-awaited messiah as a time of regal, militaristic power, which would reestablish and enforce the political and economic stability of Israel. But the prophet described a servant, mandated and equipped for his mission by Gods own Spirit (42:1). Open to Gods word and will, the servant renewed his resolve daily (50:4) and by his vicarious suffering for the sake of his people (50:5-7, 53:4-6), he would be light for the nations (49:6), bringing justice (42:1), peace and healing to the broken and the lost (53:5).
At the time the servant songs first appeared, viz. during the Babylonian exile, the prophet may have intended them as a source of strength and consolation for the displaced Israelites. If Israel identified itself with the servant figure, perhaps they could make some sense of their suffering and humiliation, accepting it as part of the divine plan for the deliverance and salvation of all peoples. Some scholars have suggested that Deutero-Isaiah may have understood his own prophetic mission (or Jeremiahs), and the sufferings inherent in speaking an unpopular message to an unwilling audience, as fulfilling the servants role. After his passion, death and resurrection, the early Christians associated the suffering figure of the Isaiah songs with Jesus. Finding scriptural support for the undeniable ignominy of Jesus suffering and death helped the early believers to understand the mystery of his cross as a part of Gods loving plan to save humanity from itself, its sin and the consequences thereof.
Paul never wrote a gospel. Obviously, he knew the gospel and preached the oral tradition of the good news effectively. Many of the earliest foundations of the church owe their origins to his evangelization. But when he wrote, he chose to spend his literary energies in helping believers to live their lives in accord with the gospel they had heard and accepted in faith. In this pericope from his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul drew his readers attention to the saving reality of Jesus cross and to the implications which the cross should have in their lives.
The bulk of this second reading is comprised of a pre-Pauline hymn in which the early Christians celebrated the death and exaltation of Jesus. Scholars believe that Paul adapted the hymn by adding the phrases death on a cross (vs. 8b), in heaven, on earth and under the earth (vs. 10b) as well as the concluding doxology (vs. 11b). As Pheme Perkins has noted, Pauls addition of death on a cross is a reflection of the apostles own theological orientation. Paul looks at the death of Christ in soteriological terms. He always things of it in terms of its benefit for the believer (Resurrection, Doubleday and Co., Garden City: 1984).
But Pauls primary reason for quoting this exultant hymn would be missed if the reader did not take serious notice of the phrase with which he introduced the hymn into his letter: Your attitude must be Christs Jesus saving death on the cross is not simply to be an annual cause for reflection (Lent, Holy Triduum) or the subject of a rousing hymn; it is to be accepted as the paradigm for the life of the believer. Christology and soteriology are to be translated into discipleship and ecclesiology. As Christ lived, so must his disciple; as he exercised his saving word and work so must the church which professes him.
Jesus attitude (or mind as in JB, NRSV) was such that he did not assert the prerogative he had as Son of God, but instead he freely chose to empty himself. Kenosis (or emptying in Greek) implied a purposeful and positive gift of oneself for the sake of others. Paul challenged the Philippians and all readers of his correspondence with them to bring to their communal life the attitude of Christ. By the selfless gift of his /her time, talent and treasure, each individual disciple and the church become a living proclamation of the good news of the cross.
Contrary to what might be expected, the gospels were written backwards. That is to say, the last events of Jesus life were told first, not simply because those last days in Jerusalem were freshest in the memory of the early Christian authors but because Jesus passion, death and resurrection constituted the most important aspect of his life and ours. In one of his greatest contributions to the faith thus far, Raymond E. Brown explains, Theologically, Christians have interpreted the death of Jesus on the cross as the key element in Gods plan for the justification, redemption and salvation of all. Spiritually, the Jesus of the passion has been the focus of Christian meditation for countless would-be disciples who take seriously the demand of the Master to take up the cross and follow him. Pastorally, the passion is the centerpiece of Lent and Holy Week, the most sacred time in the liturgical calendar. (The Death of the Messiah, Vol. I, Doubleday, New York: 1994).
When Matthew set about the task of narrating Jesus passion for his community, he did so with their theological, spiritual and pastoral needs and concerns in mind. Writing for the urban cosmopolitan community of Syrian Antioch, at a time when the breach between the synagogue and the church became official, the evangelist, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, helped his contemporaries (both Jewish and gentile) to identify themselves as Christians, rooted in, yet distinct from Judaism. Aware of the Jewish heritage as well as the increasingly gentile complexion of his church, Matthew presented Jesus as the messiah, foretold in Hebrew scripture, and as the universal savior of all peoples. Also aware of the difficulty which both Jews and gentiles had in accepting Jesus as crucified messiah and Son of God, Matthew supported his gospel proclamation with a series of well-chosen scripture texts; the so-called formula citations enabled his readers to understand that Gods foreordained plan of salvation was guiding every crucial aspect of Jesus life, including his problematic death on the cross and astounding resurrection.
For example, Jesus betrayal by Judas (26:14-26) alluded to Zechariah 11:2 and Exodus 21:32 wherein 30 silver pieces was the prescribed amount paid for the rejected shepherd (Zechariah) or as damages for a slave or servants life. By associating these citations with Jesus, Matthew presented him as the shepherd/servant betrayed by his own. In the narrative of the Eucharist (26:26-29), the phrase blood of the covenant recalled Exodus 24:8 and Zechariah 9:11 and alluded to the covenant sacrifice which bound God to his people, and to the freedom promised to the people of the covenant. By means of these citations, Matthew found support for presenting Jesus as the one by whose sacrificial death (blood poured out), all humankind would be free to enter into a lasting covenant relationship with God.
Jesus profound sorrow in Gethsemane and his prayer, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by (26:36-39) echoed John 4:9, Psalm 42:6, 11:6, Lamentations 4:21, Isaiah 51:17, 22; his conduct during his trial and the abuse he endured (27:11-14, 27-31) cast him in the light of the Isaian suffering servant (50:4-7, 53:7).
The seeming despair of Jesus on the cross, My God, My God why have you forsaken me (27:46), is more accurately understood if the reader remembers Psalm 22, the prayer of a suffering innocent person. A lament psalm, Psalm 22 lays bare the tortured body and spirit of the believer who complains to God and cries out for relief but never, ever, has any doubt that he will be saved and vindicated. Many scholars believe that the evangelists, particularly Matthew and Mark used this psalm as a reference or outline for their passion narratives. Even the apocalyptic phenomena which accompanied Jesus death (27:51-53) were told in such a way as to remind believers of the Day of the Lord (Amos 8:9) and to assure them that it had, indeed, come to pass in Jesus dying on the cross.
Having provided his readers with the assurance that Jesus cross was not a tragic accident but an integral aspect of Gods saving plan, Matthew also alerted Jesus disciples to the fact that their lives must be similarly marked by the cross because no disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master (10:24).
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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