April 6, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The cross is the crux of the whole matter

John F. FinkI wish I could take credit for the pun in the headline over this column, but I can’t.

The great G. K. Chesterton used it when he pointed out, in his masterpiece The Everlasting Man, that Christ’s crucifixion stands at the center of human history. The dogma that God died, sacrificing himself to himself, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.

St. Paul saw the importance of the Crucifixion, telling the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). To the Philippians, he quoted an early Christian hymn that proclaimed that Jesus “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

St. Paul told the Galatians what Christ did and why: He “gave himself for our sins that he might rescue us from the present evil age in accord with the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4).

All that Jesus did prior to his death was simply leading to his real purpose in life. Chesterton pointed out, “The primary thing that he was going to do was to die. He was going to do other things equally definite and objective; we might almost say equally external and material. But from the first to last, the most definite fact is that he is going to die.”

Surely Jesus could have avoided this cruel death. As he himself said, “Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than 12 legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53). He tells why he does not ask for that: “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

He suffered his agony in the garden, knowing what was about to happen. He wouldn’t have been fully human if he hadn’t prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” but he added, “Yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).

We shouldn’t, however, say that God the Father willed the Crucifixion. What God willed was our redemption. He permitted the cruel death brought about by sin. It was indeed a cruel death, what the first-century historian Josephus called “the most wretched of deaths.” It was the method of execution begun by the ancient Persians, and perfected by both the Carthaginians and the Romans.

The crowd yelled, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Mt 27:40) and, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Mt 27:42). Having accepted his Father’s will, Jesus accepts these provocations which seem to undermine the whole meaning of his mission, his teaching, his miracles. He wills it all.

And so the God-man died for us. Why? Because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). †

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