A Bloody Cross for a Modern World

Pictures and interpretations which were once appropriate and evocative can become irrelevant in another culture. Or within our present culture, which regards, for example, the ritual slaughter of animals as repulsive, it is highly questionable whether we should go on describing the saving significance of the death of Jesus as a bloody sacrifice made to an angry God who needed it in order to be placated. In modern conditions this is likely to discredit authentic belief in the real saving significance of this death: it goes against all critical and responsible modern experience. ~ Edward Schillebeeckx

A modern person may believe in the cross, but not as bloody; in God, but not as wrathful; and in Jesus, but not as sacrifice for sins. In short, a modern person may believe, but not in Christianity.

Schillebeeckx notes that moderns find atonement repulsive. This is not surprising. Ancients, too, found it repulsive. There is nothing endearing about leading an animal to an altar, hacking it to pieces, waving its dismembered pieces, and igniting its carcass. Aesthetic satisfaction is scarce amid the blood-soaked ground, sweat-stained clothes, and charred-flesh fumes. If there was flair and bombast in the ritual, it was to obscure the gruesome reality. If there was celebration at the end, it was for the effects the sacrifices procured.

Even if we could imagine that the ancients truly enjoyed sacrificing animals to the gods, we still must explain the prevalence of “bloody sacrifice” language in Christianity. It occurs among the Calvinists, the Wesleyans, the Moravians, the Baptists, the evangelicals, and more. Yet, none of these groups were bloodthirsty neanderthals. In several of them, the contrary was quite the case. Stuffy bourgeoise values and staid characters were the norm. Yet, when they spoke of the cross, blood and propitiation were on their lips.

Schillebeeckx cringes at the response of the modern person to the cross. He seeks to fashion a passion that confirms the modern person in her sensitivities, applauds her virtues, and reinforces her concept of reality. Before we condemn him, we should remember that this process has been long in the making. Catholics fashion gold-gilded crucifixes so beautiful that they obliterate any trace of horror. Evangelicals gather to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” in dulcet, nostalgic tones. Christians paint crucifixion as three neat silhouettes casting even shadows over a hushed hillside, the sinking sun bathing all in its last splendid rays. If the cross has become so unintelligible to Christians, it is little wonder that it perplexes the world.

The cross is the resounding, “No!” to the modern world’s pretensions. It mocks our values, reverses our expectations, unmasks our ambitions, deconstructs our security. It refuses to approbate our utopias and coddle our narcissism. It testifies that the world cannot bear God’s righteousness. The world encountered a man who did no wrong, who fully embodied God’s presence and taught the ways of God’s kingdom; for this, it hated him so much it destroyed him. The modern person knows that the cross condemns him, so he must either domesticate it or reject it.

Domestication is the usual first choice. If the cross can be emptied of wrath and punishment, sin loses its sting. Indeed, the modern person applies the word “sin” now only to child molesting or over-rich chocolate cake. The gross incongruity marks the vapidness of the term. Condemnation deflected, modernity finds itself reflected in this cross of its own creation. This is the cross that found “biblical” arguments for slavery, for segregation, for domination, for apathy. It is a cross that can hang in one’s church or around one’s neck and never drive one to self-denial, to identification with the suffering or the outcast.

Yet the cross reasserts its message in every community that keeps the Scriptures. There the holy wrath of God gives meaning to sin; against the midnight backdrop of sin the Savior’s perfection shines. The perfect God, who would be within his rights to snuff out the breath of man, is instead murdered by sinful creatures! Rejected by those he came to save, forsaken by the eternal Father, God is dead! The heavens cannot bear the absurdity; the sky darkens. The earth cannot contain its outrage; the ground quakes. Hades is dumbfounded; graves open and the dead walk. But God is satisfied; the temple veil is torn in two. The Father has not forever forsaken the Son of his love; resurrection looms, waiting for the unveiling.

The cross is a parting of the ways. The modern person may see the cross and go his own way, sensibilities intact. Or, he may embrace the way of the cross, surrendering unconditionally to its “no” and finding  the “yes” that was in fact always on the other side.

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Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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