Behold the Wood of the Cross March 31, 2023

Palm Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion inaugurates Holy Week. This is the time par excellence when Christians remember and celebrate the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. At the core of this mystery stands the cross, the crux of our salvation. Interestingly, the early Christians bypassed the cross while focusing on the resurrection. The ubiquitous depictions of the cross and crucifix we have today were absent in early Christianity. The manner of Jesus’ death was deemed shameful and embarrassing. Moreover, according to Judaism, the Messiah would never die. So early Christians stayed clear of the cross and focused on the resurrection.

Gradually, however crosses and crucifixes made their appearance in churches and in art. First came the cross adorned with a victory wreath: the victorious cross. Then came the cross with Jesus standing on the suppedaneum, the wooden bar that projected from the cross, his eyes wide open and arms outstretched. In these depictions, Jesus is clearly in control and no suffering is shown. Finally, from the 10th C. on Jesus started to be represented as dying on the cross with a sagging body and closed eyes. These depictions clearly emphasize the agony of Jesus’ death. Incidentally, this was a time when European society was in shambles plagued by wars, disease, and famine. Christians found solace for their suffering in the suffering of Jesus.

Parallel to this evolution in artistic depictions was an evolution in the theology of the Passion of Jesus. Though the first generation of Christians ignored the crucifixion and focused solely on the resurrection, already by the second half of the first century, when the books of the New Testament were written a theology of atonement developed. All the events in Jesus life, including his passion and death were interpreted using the texts and images from the Hebrew Scriptures. As a result, the theology of the death of Jesus was inspired by the notion of Sin Offering (Leviticus 4-5), Scapegoat (Leviticus 16), Passover Lamb (Exodus 12) and of course, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) which is always the first reading on Good Friday.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed this theology of atonement into a theology of satisfaction. In one of his writings (Cur Deus Homo) he posited that Jesus’ death was necessary to satisfy the debt of humanity to God, due to sin. The notion that Jesus died for our sins is based on the theology of atonement and satisfaction. This theology, though sometimes criticized for obscuring God’s mercy has largely influenced Christian theology till more recent times. The essence of this argument is that the goal of Jesus’ incarnation was his passion and death. In other words, he was born specifically to become the Pascal Lamb and the Suffering Servant. Such a narrow view, however, obfuscates the salvific value of Jesus’ life and ministry.  

Today, theologians suggest that Jesus’ death was not the primary goal but rather the ultimate consequence of Jesus’ life. In essence, Jesus became one of us to show us the way to salvation which is the path of unconditional love for God and neighbor even unto death. God did not desire Jesus’ death. God’s desire was for Jesus to embody God’s love even if this might lead to death. Jesus’ selfless love is what broke the human bond to sin.

During Holy Week we give thanks for God’s unconditional love for us as it was embodied in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. And those of us who are followers of Jesus are invited to walk the same path of unconditional love which is the path to salvation. And when we venerate the cross on Good Friday let us beware that this act of veneration is not only an act of reverence and gratitude for what Jesus did but also a gesture of commitment to carry on the work of Jesus to transform our world from sin to salvation through unconditional love.

Blessed Holy Week