Cross necklaceThe cross is, of course, central to the Christian faith. That we should devote much thought to it, especially during this period of Lent, is only appropriate.

However, I’d like to take a few moments to challenge quite how we think about it.

One of the ways I believe we often get the cross wrong is to see it as the symbol of the satisfaction of God’s retributive justice upon an innocent victim in our place. I’ve written about this on a number of previous occasions, most recently here.

But there’s another way we routinely misunderstand and mistreat the cross, and it’s this: by treating it as a metaphysical reality to be believed in rather than the sign and the symbol of something much deeper.

Let me unpack that a bit.

If we see the cross as first and foremost the fulcrum of a legal transaction in which we exchange our sins for Jesus’ innocence, there’s a strong tendency for us to put our faith (in other words our belief or trust) in the event of the cross, which was over and done with some two thousand years ago. Of course, we might express our gratitude to Jesus, the one who suffered that event, and we might say we love him for it. But the fact remains that it’s a done deal. The work was done for us at Calvary; all we need do is accept our role in the transaction (by “repenting” and professing belief in Jesus) and hey presto, we have our golden ticket (the knowledge of forgiveness of sins and entrance to “eternal life”).

The problem with this view is that it can often result in the cross being seen as a kind of talisman, an artefact that magically bestows upon us protection from judgement and damnation. Taken to its extreme, the cross ends up being little more than a clove of supernatural garlic to ward off the spectre of divine retribution. And something as beautiful and profound as the eucharist can effectively become a collective ritual re-invoking of the cross’s mysterious power. (I should note that in some circles, this is entirely of a piece with the habitual use of the name of Jesus as a kind of heavenly abracadabra to fend off all manner of perceived evil.)

This, then, is what I mean by “treating the cross as a metaphysical reality to be believed in”: understanding the cross as somehow a source of divine power in and of itself, to which we are given the keys when we perform the proper steps of belief.

The description I’ve given above may be slightly caricatured, but really, only slightly. It’s essentially what I believed for many years. And now I categorically reject it.

For me, what it boils down to is this: the cross did not provide forgiveness for sins. To believe that it did is to believe first that God’s desire and ability to forgive is bound by transactional constraints, and second that it is an event or a transaction that brings us freedom. Both of these are notions I fundamentally reject.

Let’s take each of these points in turn.

First, God was not somehow enabled to forgive our sins when Jesus went to the cross. If that were so, how on earth could Jesus have gone around proclaiming forgiveness of sins throughout his ministry? And how could Jesus have declared forgiveness for his executioners even as they nailed him to the cross? God freely forgives sin because it is his nature to do so, not because some deadly transactional condition has been met.

Second, the event of the cross did not supernaturally bring us freedom. When Jesus died and the skies darkened on that blackest of Fridays, there was no cosmic set of weighing scales that were mysteriously caused to tip in our favour. Jesus’ death on the cross was not the triggering event in a metaphysical transaction of planetary implications.

At one level, Jesus’ death on the cross was something far more sordid and banal than this: it was the brutal, bloody murder of an innocent man at the hands of a scapegoating mob. And yet, seen from another plane, the cross was far more beautiful and profound than that.

The cross, you see, was where humanity vented the worst of its violence, hypocrisy and hatred against the one who deserved it least, and where that One responded not with vengeance or even offence, but rather with limitless grace and forgiveness. It was the place where the vilest, most repulsive expression of human sin was absorbed into the black hole of God’s infinite forgiveness.

I will always cherish the cross. I used to wear a cross-shaped pendant around my neck, and I will always quiet my heart in reverence before a crucifix in any church. But my trust is not in a lump of rough-hewn wood installed on a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago. My trust is in the God who always and everywhere receives the worst of our duplicity and aggression full in the face and returns it not with a score-settling counterblow, but with the words “Father, forgive”.

[ Image: photosteve101 ]