Why What We Say About the Cross Matters

I recently discussed the meaning of the cross with friends here in Los Angeles. As it turns out, many of us have many ideas about what the cross accomplished and why. The technical word for the meaning of the cross is called atonement. Many meanings are given to the cross and thus many atonement theories are proposed to Catholics today.

Our discussion began with an analysis of Jesus' final words before his death: "It is finished" (John 19:30). We began discussing how the sufficiency of Jesus' death is expressed in these words. But the question was then asked, sufficiency concerning what? What exactly is finished? When did "it" start, and why did "it" end there, as opposed to (say) sometime later the next day? Moreover, if it is finished, then what of the resurrection, not least of Jesus' ascension into heaven? Do they have anything to do with the cross and its meaning? And if so, was only part of "it" finished on the cross, or is there something more that makes the resurrection and ascension somehow necessary?

These questions, and many others like them, have forced Christians to rethink the whole idea of atonement and whether or not there can be meaning given to the cross isolated from the events that came after (not least those that which came before). That is, without also considering what Catholics have traditionally called the Paschal Mystery (the whole of Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, and ascension). The reason, of course, is simply because atonement theories have most often isolated the cross from what came after Good Friday, as well as what came before it.

We have been told by some that the Gospels are just passion narratives with long introductions. But why, then, does Matthew, Mark, Luke and John go through the trouble of constructing and then writing their narratives with such obvious purpose; not merely that Jesus was crucified by why? We aren't asking why Pilate or the Jewish leaders at the time crucified Jesus (they had no idea of the larger story at play). Rather, we are asking a more nuanced question: why did it end with this ("it" being the biblical narrative)? Why did the story of the Bible climax with the crucifixion of God's own Son? And why did that crucifixion become defined within the context of the resurrection and then subsequent ascension of God's own Son at His right hand? We can all too easily give meaning to Jesus' crucifixion that considers nothing of the meaning of the resurrection and the (all-too-forgotten) feast of the Ascension.

Surely (someone might ask), isn't all this just overthinking it? (There's that pesky "it" again.) Possibly, but as Fr. Nicholas E. Lombardo said in his book on the crucifixion, "In the Gospels, Jesus foresees his death and moves toward it as though it were the culmination of his public ministry" (1). That means, among other things, that there is an intimate link between what we might say about Jesus' crucifixion and what we might say about Jesus' ministry. The cross points in both directions: forward, to the whole Paschal Mystery, and backward, from incarnation to arrival in Jerusalem at Passover.

The point is this. Whatever we might want to say about the cross, it must make sense of what Jesus was doing before in his ministry and what came after in his resurrection and ascension. Fr. Tim even made the point, in a private conversation I had with him this past week, that it ought also to make sense of Pentecost.

What we say about the cross matters.

It matters for understanding how the whole story fits together. And for Catholics, it matters because, as is seen in our theological and liturgical tradition, the cross is what makes sense of the Eucharist. But the reverse is also true: it's the Eucharist that makes sense of the cross.

To get at this a bit more, consider the following. Scott Hahn's book, The Fourth Cup, masterfully demonstrates the meaning of Jesus' final words, "It is finished," and what those words meant in their original context. For Hahn, the answer to our first question—what is finished?—comes in the form of Jesus' inauguration of a new passover of a new Exodus. Eucharist and cross, together.

But where is Hahn getting all this? Simply put, he is getting it from the story. But it is not only the larger story. It is also found in the minute details of the texts. Scott Hahn's conclusion might seem simple, but it itself is drawn from a long, hard, painstaking effort to piece together all that the authors of the Gospels were trying to tell us.

This point is especially drawn out in the preaching of someone like Fr. Tim Grumbach. For Fr. Tim, as was demonstrated recently with his sermon concerning the story of Zacchaeus, the Greek word that often gets translated Sycamore is an unfortunate translation. It should read Sycamore-fig tree. Is Fr. Tim being too fussy about translations? And this is a sermon, anyway; doesn't he know we don't have time for Greek words and minute details? Yet, for men like Fr. Tim (not least for Jesus Himself, and St. Paul for that matter), it really does matter that it wasn't a Sycamore tree but rather a Sycamore-fig tree. It matters enough to tell his flock at an 11:00 AM Mass. But why? Why does it matter? Because it gives the story the meaning that it has. The fig tree tells us about Zacchaeus, and thus about Jesus' ministry to this particular person. Where Zacchaeus was (fig tree) tells us about who Zacchaeus was (a defrauder). As Fr. Tim went on to emphasize in his homily, there is a wordplay on fig tree here. Both fig tree (sukomorea) and extortioner (sukophantes) ring true for Zacchaeus: he is at one and the same time both an extortioner and a man climbing a fig tree. The sukophantes is in the sukomorea.

All of this would have been more than obvious to the first century audience. And here is our biggest challenge. We, who live thousands of years later, are still trying to dig up in the details of the text what was most obvious to the early Church on the surface. The story of Zacchaeus, as well as many, many others in the New Testament, are tell-tale signs that those who want to know why Jesus said and did the things he said and did will have to get close, very close to the texts of Scripture. And when it comes to the cross, the weight of this point is particularly heavy. If we begin borrowing metaphors, either ancient or modern, to describe what happened on the cross, the danger is always, of course, of possibly losing the original context. Jesus chose Passover to give the cross the meaning that it has. Why did Jesus do that? There must be a meaning, a reason, a worldview, a something or other.

If Jesus chose Passover to give the cross the meaning that it has - and not (say) another Jewish festival - there must have been a reason. What that reason was will need yet another article.

(1) Lombardo,, Nicholas E.. The Father's Will: Christ's Crucifixion and the Goodness of God. United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2013, 95.

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