In his book titled Life of Christ, Fulton Sheen emphatically states that ‘the shadow of the Cross fell over every detail of the life of Christ from the beginning’ (2009:15). This means that the Cross does not refer only to the Calvary experience, but was implied by other events in the life of Christ. Hence, he refers to Christ as ‘the only man whose destiny in the world was to die’ (2009:13). This paper is an attempt to examine the peculiarity and the centrality of the Cross in the life of Jesus, as against the cultural and political connotations attached to the Cross during his life on earth. Hence, it extends its inquiry into various biblical passages, theological positions, and Church documents.
THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST
History has it that Jesus Christ was born about 2000 years ago (McBrien, 2008:399). One interesting thing about Christ is that his identity and his mission are summed up in his name. ‘Jesus’ in Hebrew means ‘God saves’ (cf. Matt. 1:21). The term ‘Christ’ is from ‘Christos,’ which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah.’ It simply means someone who is anointed. The Gospels offer us the most authentic and comprehensive account of the life of Jesus. Matthew traces his genealogy to David, the son of Abraham. The Catholic Church believes and confesses that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel (Mary), at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died ‘crucified’ in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the Eternal Son of God made man, and in him God fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his descendants (CCC, 422 – 423). Hence, God’s saving plan was accomplished, once for all, by the redemptive death of Jesus Christ.
The Significance of the Cross in the Greco-Roman World
The years 63 – 37 BC saw the definitive establishment of Roman power in Palestine and the end of the Hasmoneans. Having taken Jerusalem, Pompey incorporated Palestine into the reorganized province of Syria (Brown, 2013:1244). In ancient times, the Cross was an instrument of Rome’s brutalizing power to humiliate. Being humiliated or humbled was not considered a virtue by the Romans. The root word is humilitas which meant something like ‘crushed’ or ‘debased’. It was associated with failure and shame. Only the Romans had the legal authority to crucify someone –it was their customary way of dealing with criminals or troublemakers. In essence, crucifixion did not start with Jesus. Some historians would describe Jesus as one of the criminals executed by the Romans, and nothing more. Ratzinger notes that the two robbers were crucified with Jesus because they have been found guilty of the same crime – resistance to Roman power (2011:211). This does not place Ratzinger in such category of historians but tends to harp on the meaning attached to the Cross in the Greco-Roman world. The Cross in that context and setting was simply an object of humiliation and shameful execution.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE CROSS IN THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST
To address this issue effectively, we must go beyond the cultural and make a leap into the New Testament understanding of the Cross of Jesus. Again, in fixing the meaning of the Cross, we must consider not only the fact that a symbol can have many senses but also the twofold iconological root of Cross symbolism as both signum and lignum crucis – sign and wood of the cross. In the case of Christ, there is an inter-relation between the two motifs (sign and wood). When we say ‘the wood of the Cross’ we commit to memory the suffering and death of Christ as a concrete historical fact. The four Gospels tell of the hours that Jesus spent hanging on the Cross and of his death. They may differ in details and emphases but they agree on the broad outline of what happened (2011:202). The Church maintains that Jesus’ sufferings took their historical, concrete form from the fact that he was rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, who handed him over to the Gentiles to be crucified (CCC, 572). Faith therefore becomes a conditio sine qua non for examining the significance of the Cross as fully handed on by the Gospels and illuminated by other historical sources. The Cross for Christians is a sign of victory over sin and death. In fact, it is the hub of Christian life. Fulton Sheen explicitly states that ‘if we leave the Cross out of the life of Christ, we have nothing left, and certainly not Christianity’ (2009:14). The emphasis on victory is supported by this biblical passage: ‘Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who came not with water only but with the water and the blood’ (I Jn. 5:5-6). Sheen continues, ‘for the Cross is related to our sins. Christ took our guilt as if He were guilty and thus paid the debt that sin deserved, namely, death. This made possible our resurrection to a new life in Him’ (2009:14).
It is quite clear that the concept of the Cross in the life of Christ remains enigmatic for many. This means that the most important for the image and concept of the Cross was the need to wrestle with the scandal of the crucifixion of Jesus. St. Paul affirms the scandalous nature of the Cross of Christ as necessary for all Christians (Gal. 5:11). In essence, what he tries to demonstrate in that passage is that if the Gospel is for liberation, the apostles should adopt, at least on certain points, positions that disturb and shock. In the same letter, Paul reprimands the Galatians in these words: ‘How foolish you are, Galatians! How could they bewitch you after Jesus Christ has been presented to you crucified? Now Christ rescued us from the curse of the law by becoming cursed himself for our sake’ (Gal. 3:1, 10-13). This passage highlights Paul’s attempt to prove that God willed the Cross of Jesus, notwithstanding the curse embodied in the law: ‘there is a curse on the man who is hanged on a tree’ (Deut. 21:23). Furthermore, it emphasizes the problem of being under the law (operating under a curse), and how Christ as the curse-bearer has opened a new pathway to God, and reconciled us with the Father. The necessity of the Cross is implied in the Passion prediction which we find in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus himself revealed to his disciples that the Son of Man had to suffer many things, and be killed and rise after three days (Mk. 8:31). The seriousness of this was reechoed when he rebuked Peter for raising an objection against the Passion. Jesus had to suffer because this is the fate of sinners. He had to suffer and be rejected by authorities, because this is the destiny of those who proclaim the truth. He had to freely go to his death because self-sacrifice is the only means for the salvation of the world (Catholic Church, 2005:94-95).
In his ‘Dialogue with Trypho,’ Justin the Martyr tries to prove that the crucified Jesus is the Christ. Justin maintains that the shameful Passion of Christ was foretold by the prophets. His choice of words suggests that he was making reference to the Prophecy of Isaiah, which describes the fate of the suffering servant – ‘But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all. Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth’ (Is. 53:6-7). Justin claims that these were very distinctive of Jesus Christ, and it is not possible for us to do anything else than believe in Him most confidently (Dialogue, 89). He goes further to state that what the law gives us are typologies of the Cross. The stretching of Moses’ hands at the war against Amalek, and the Bronze Serpent which was erected to counteract the serpents which bit Israel, were types of the Cross. In summary, Justin’s conclusion is that the prophecies relate to us the message of the Cross but in a veiled manner.
Some critics argue that the Cross seems to undermine God’s omnipotence and fairness, since he could not spare his own Son, but willed his death in order to deal with human wickedness. St. Paul however argues that God does not act according to human standards – ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’ (I Cor. 1:25). Consequently, those called to faith and salvation were those whom, the world would consider foolish (Catholic Church, 2011:1974). Sheen asserts that the Cross is related to our sins, and the modern world does not like the word ‘sin’ (2009:14). The denial of sin is the denial of the Cross. The Cross reminds us of the importance to reject sin and live like the people of salvation. Appallingly, our decadent western civilization never speaks of self-discipline, restraint, penance, and mortification. Individualism, epicureanism and chaos have overtaken humanity because individuals and societies view the Cross as a burden and a religious relic. It is true however that the efficacy of the Cross is not outdated because the Catholic Church whose faith and practice subsist in the Mysteries of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, has contributed to world peace more than any other institution in the world.
The Scriptures, Church Fathers, theologians, historians, etc, may have strong points to substantiate the idea of the centrality of the Cross in the life of Christ, but their efforts remain ineffective unless the individual approaches the issue personally by making it a faith adventure. This does not in any way represent the ‘privatized faith’ of the Prostestants but goes deeper than that. It stands to explain that to accept ‘the Jesus of history’ without accepting ‘the Christ of faith’ is to take Jesus as a human being and no more. In an unprecedented manner, the Cross of Jesus is a faith phenomenon because it affirms his Christhood.
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- Rev. Kenneth Oforma, CSSp