I’m pretty sure that the most unsettling (and yet wonderful) thought to cross my mind in recent weeks is that our salvation truly involves undoing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This goes against virtually everything that I was taught to understand as the meaning of the Bible and the way in which Jesus made it possible for some of us to enjoy God forever (as I would have understood it some time back). I grew up with some vague but still deeply held conviction that loving God forever in heaven would involve eternal contemplation of how much Jesus had been willing to suffer so that I might be set free from the punishment of hell.
To be fair, that is not at all the full picture of heaven that I had. On the one hand, of course Christ does profoundly demonstrate his love for us upon the cross. What I was taught in this regard was true, although I’d now say that Christ, by his choice to fully join with us in suffering and death, gives us the means of participating with his death so that our deaths might be entirely replaced by life with him. Not only was I taught truly of Christ’s love, but I was also given many other very real and wonderful examples of love. I knew generous love all through my childhood as the stuff of parental and sibling relationships as well as a large and warm extended family and rich friendships. All of this, I fully connected to my love for God and to God’s love for me. However, Christ’s death on the cross was presented as the only event that could ensure that anyone might deserve to enjoy such love forever. And the supreme example of love was Christ’s willingness to suffer unjustly to appease the justice of God which must punish all sins as violations of God’s infinite goodness. I now see this as all being so full of warped misunderstandings of the Scriptures and of the nature of sin, sacrifice, salvation, love, and life, that I wonder how it could be so fully maintained as a coherent belief system across generations.
At any rate, it had never occurred to me until just recently that I should long for a world in which Christ had never been crucified. Such a thought would have seemed sacrilegious. Decades ago, I did learn that the incarnation was the purpose of creation (although I hadn’t learned yet that it was also the means of creation) and that the incarnation would have happened even in an unfallen world and without any crucifixion. However, this never took me to the next obvious step of feeling a deep sadness over a history in which Jesus Christ would have to suffer a brutal death. I felt some sadness for the fallenness and suffering of creation and for the suffering of Christ at his crucifixion but not specifically over the circumstances that resulted in Christ’s death. I also never felt a profound longing for a world where the crucifixion would never have happened.
However, now, it suddenly seems obvious to me that what once seemed sacrilegious to me (wishing that Christ had never had to go to the cross) is a longing that should be cultivated by any meaningful Christian devotion. It also seems clear that sadness over the suffering of the world is one with sadness over the suffering of Jesus Christ. This is a basic lesson taught by Mother Maria of Paris with her insight that every human is both a mother of God and a son of God, so that we are all involuntarily bound to the suffering of others as a mother to her child and also must voluntarily take up our own suffering as Christ does.
My Orthodox Christian priest mentioned in a homily after Pascha this year that we linger over the burial of Christ in our Holy Week services today because Christ’s burial was so tragically hurried in its own time. Now, however, we have the opportunity to do for Christ what his mother and his beloved followers wanted to do but could not. We can stand quietly beside his body and sing of our sorrow at his death. We can stand by his grave and chant psalms in solemn vigil through the night. I was struck by what my priest said and realized that Holy Week, year after year, was slowly training me to sorrow with Mary over the death of Christ. Many of the hymns during this week are even in her voice. Christ’s mother teaches us during Holy Week how to be human as she teaches us to weep with her over the death of her son.
So what, really, is the spiritual value of learning to sorrow more and more fully over Christ’s crucifixion? How is learning to desire that Christ not have been killed a benefit to our souls? It turns out that this may be our greatest need.
Jesus Christ taught that the law and the prophets all can be summarized as a call to the love of God and of neighbor, but we have a problem. Of course, Christians are regularly taught that love of God is easily distorted in idolatry. However, what we don’t learn is that idolatry also distorts our love of neighbor. We not only have false ideas of God, but we have false ideas of neighbors.
It is not a simple matter to learn to love our neighbor. If we love our neighbor‘s false projections of themselves (reinforcing it with false hopes or imaginings of our own about them), we participate in their own perpetuation of a lie and their own continual inability to receive their true self. We impede them in learning to exercise their will with full capacity and freedom, and we block their participation with us in the infinitely creative life of God.
However, if Christ is the incarnation of God (making it possible for humanity to become divine) then we, by learning to love Christ, learn to love both God and neighbor. In fact, we learn to see our true God and our true neighbor more and more clearly as we learn to behold Christ. Contemplation of Christ literally replaces our idols with the reality of all around us so that God and neighbor become more and more truly visible to us.
And Christ is even more complete than this. If every human person contains a microcosm of the entire cosmos (as Maximus the Confessor says), then the incarnation of Jesus Christ is (as the first fully human person) the first incarnation or creation of the entire world. This is what chapter 1 of John’s Gospel teaches after all. With this, learning to love Jesus Christ is learning to love all of creation as our neighbor.
If the reader who has made it through everything so far recalls my first sentence, they may be wondering why I said “undoing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” I’ve only ended up talking about learning to better mourn the death of Christ, to stand with Christ’s mother, his beloved disciple, and the few others who tended to his dead body so that we might add to what they wished to do but could not amid the hurry and the power-plays surrounding them. I’ve only spoken of better seeing Christ so that we might better see both God and all creation.
But what I have said so far is not my main point. I started this reflection in order to speak explicitly of changing our past by completing every incomplete act and straightening every misdirected desire so that Christ is not killed by us on a cross in the end (while still giving himself fully to us as his body and his bride).
However, first, I should acknowledge that even this desire that Christ not have been killed can become grossly distorted. A horrible example of this is the hatred of the “Christ killers” that is so tragically focused on the Jews throughout virtually all of Christian history. Clearly there is a kind of false Christian devotion that very easily focuses our false love for Christ into a hatred of “those others” who killed him. Our devotion should instead focus on the fact that every hurt done by us to any member of Christ’s body is literally our own participation in the crucifiction of our Lord. Christians persecuting and killing Jews across history is, in fact, our own ongoing slaughter of God incarnate. Theologically, if we wish to consider any category of humanity that is most culpable for the killing of Christ, it would be the powerful who are in league with Caesar (a position that Christian church leaders would come to know across centuries of church history as well as any member of the Sanhedrin or officers of the temple guard). After all, Mary’s song—when her child’s divinity is recognized in the womb—is entirely about how God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
With this warning, we can all hope to become like two powerful men who did attend to Christ’s death: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Or we might pray for the heart of Longinus the Centurion. Either way, it is a blessing each year to reach Holy Week, where we learn to stand with Mary and to mourn the death of her son in an unhurried way and then to hear the early morning news of the myrrh-bearing women, those “apostles to the apostles.” As we enter into the life of Christ’s resurrection by means of his death, our own restoration to life means that we can become those who would have nourished and loved the body of Christ instead of scourging him and hanging him upon a tree to die.
As we learn to have this love for Christ and as we live in the strength of his resurrection, we should desire to undo the crucifixion of Christ just as we should want to undo all the suffering that we have ever caused to others. And really, these two desires belong together. We participate in crucifying Christ with every hurt that we cause to any portion of his creation, to any member of his body, to any of “the least of these.” I have thought something like this in small ways even since my childhood, but it was only recently that I seriously started to consider that our Christian calling is to undo every hurt we ever caused and that this will mean that we collectively will undo the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and heal the wounds on his body.
This raises a host of questions, of course, such as how we can consider the past unfinished and alterable. We might also ask how we can be saved if we are called to undo the means of our own salvation? Of course the answer to this second question is that it is not the brutality of Christ’s death that saved us. It is Christ’s complete giving of himself to us so that he might become our very life, even from within our own death. Kenosis (self-emptying) is part of the eternal trinitarian life of God and part of God’s relationship to creation in the Son, but this gift and sacrifice of full participation with us—of becoming our very sustenance and food—does not require a brutal murder. It only requires giving and receiving. When we undo the actions whereby we have crucified Christ, the tree of life will still remain blossoming forth from the womb of Mary as the ancient nativity hymns proclaim:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! / Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! / Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: / If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. / Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning! [Troparia for the Forefeast of the Nativity of our Lord]
Of course, I am not proposing that we can do this without taking up our own cross and following Christ to the point of our own death. As John Behr loves to point out, our death is the one thing in this world that is entirely our own. Even if we must learn to die fully after our bodies have died, we must learn to do it fully and willingly because it is only in death where the life of Christ is found, where we become human, and where we can finally learn to take up again, with bold and steady hands, the actions that we have left undone. In this divine life found through death with Christ, we can make the creative and loving decisions that will be required to complete all that we must finish and make straight. It is a great work to undo every hurt that we caused through deliberate action, through neglect, and even through ignorance—to set right every shortfall that we left behind either of our own accord or in coordination with others. And this is the work to which Christ calls us as he makes all things new.