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Horror Becomes Beauty, Death Becomes Life

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. This day commemorates the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified and died. Today also reminds us that God’s love, mercy, and grace shine brightly through humility, suffering and loss. In the darkness, even a tiny spark can seem like the brightest of lights.

It is so easy when we look at the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus to think of God as an angry, vengeful, grudge-holding absolute monarch who demands that humanity be subjects, squarely under the divine thumb. That even the Son of God, the eternal Word, a person of the indivisible Holy Trinity might be subject to God’s wrath for daring to participate in humanity’s flesh and nature. This idea of the Son suffering to appease an angry Father collecting on some cosmic debt has been preached many times, in many places, over many years and each time that I hear it, my heart sinks. It reduces God’s motivations and actions to the same as those of humanity at our absolute worst. It turns an unseeing eye to the love, mercy, and grace poured out in the crucifixion. It removes the awesome divine capacity to transfigure even the most horrible creations of humanity into moments and icons of redeeming beauty.

Against the backdrop of a sunrise, a cross on a chain hangs from a rope.

In John’s record of the Gospel we find the verse so often quoted and held up on placards: 3.16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This verse is a beautiful encapsulation of the motivation of God’s actions and the basis of the relationship between God and humanity: Love. Yet this verse is often the precursor to teaching on what one must do to earn or be worthy of the eternal life promised in it.

This practice is a betrayal of the Gospel’s truth and the good news it holds, for John 3.16 is only part of the statement. We must read on into verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John does go on to describe God’s justice and judgement of humanity’s responses to the Incarnation and these are worthy of reflection, but what is critical here is the realization that God’s motivation and desire in the Incarnation, in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ, in the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and in the second coming at the end of time is always love of humanity. Love of us. Love of you and me.

God is willing to leave the glory of heaven and the splendour of eternity to take on human flesh and nature. The one who is the voice of thunder enters the womb of Mary and lives in silence. The one who feeds and clothes all of creation is born, wet and crying and hungry. The one who heals all ills and wipes away every tear knows suffering and loss. The one who is the source of all life knows death on a cross. This is the humility of God in the face of the need of humanity to be freed from the power of sin and death.

Jesus approaches the cross, one of the most cruel and shameful means of execution in his world, lifts it to his shoulder, and carries it toward his own execution. He is raised upon it and dies, slowly and painfully. But as this happens, Jesus continues to extend blessing and redemption to those around him. Simon and Veronica who help him on the road to Golgotha; the repentant thief beside him on the cross who desires to enter heaven; when his body is pierced he pours forth water and blood, baptism and communion, grace and mercy into the world. Every punishment and humiliation that humanity visits upon Jesus upon the cross is transformed. Horror becomes beauty. Sin becomes redemption. Death becomes life.

Today we remember the cross. We remember it is empty. We remember that the crucifixion is not the end of the story, but a moment where humanity, at its most selfish and cruel, must reckon with the overwhelming love of God. We remember that in our own darkest moments, the light of God’s love is within us and before us.

And for all of this, we celebrate and give thanks.

Photo by Maurício Eugênio

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