March 27, 2024 at 9:28 a.m.

Was the cross necessary?

Everyone must ultimately deal with this question: either Jesus is or is not who he says he is.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Why did Jesus have to die? Why do any of us die? If Jesus really is God, and was sinless, why would HE have to undergo such an excruciating and humiliating execution? Touching on that last word for a moment — execution — there seems to be little doubt that the death of Jesus Christ was a political execution. In a kind of perfect storm, several quite divergent interests converged strategically against Jesus of Nazareth. 

The temple elites feared the growing popularity of the Nazarene, not only out of jealousy perhaps for the attention he was drawing but also the uncertainty about how such notoriety might be viewed by the Roman occupiers. It could easily provoke suppression, or a restriction of rights and liberties enjoyed under Roman rule. Finding some scapegoat would be useful to both parties, despite the risks. Having Jesus out of the way, it is clear, would offer relief for each camp, especially if the one side could lay blame on the other. 

Does it not seem that God, in allowing the fate of Jesus to fall into such venal and self-centered interests — political opportunism at best — is failing to protect his faithful servant? Many good people among us, even if not of our faith, are all too familiar with the sense that, for all the good we may try to do, we are not appreciated or even noticed for our work. It may not be that we are seeking praise and affirmation from other human beings, but at least some sign or assurance that God — someone — sees and values our contribution.

In the Passion narratives we hear during Holy Week, we are reminded how closely the experiences of Jesus himself come to ours, especially at moments of discouragement when we may feel even God has abandoned us. For all his godliness and human goodness, Jesus is not spared the pain of betrayal by his closest friends. On the cross, he even cries out, feeling abandonment by God himself. Why? Did this have to happen? And in this way?

An early Christian heresy — one of a series denying the full humanity of Christ — is described under the Greek moniker “docetism.” Those who ascribe to it are horrified by the thought that God would permit his divine Son to suffer in this way. Christ, therefore, only “seemed” to suffer, it is suggested. He went through the motions, so to speak, but was somehow exempt from the pain of our human condition. Denial of the cross diminishes its import, separating it not only from God, but from us as well.

Throughout history, variations on this heretical thinking have emerged, sometimes in academic or professional theological circles. They are attempts to look away from or to rationalize the horror of the cross. In our own time, I have even heard among some Christians that we don’t need to talk any more about sin and evil, or any connection between the cross and our own lives. It was a terrible thing, of course, and it is so sad that this happened to Jesus, a good man, but now we have other ways of understanding human evils as psychological illness or the result of some trauma or genetic anomaly. 

The Passion narrative that we heard just this past Palm Sunday was from the Gospel according to St. Mark, the earliest one we have. Central to Mark’s account is the kingship of Jesus Christ. Several of his interrogators ask Jesus whether he is a “king” or “King of the Jews?” The questions go right to the issue of his messiahship or divinity. Is he truly “the one who is to come,” sent by God.

To each of these inquiries, Jesus responds that he is, in some instances using the weighty “I AM,” which in the Hebrew Scriptures were words that only the deity would have the right to say. This was the way God responded to the request of Moses for the divine name, as it is often translated. In the Gospel of St. John, which we will hear proclaimed on Good Friday, the charge of blasphemy is raised against Jesus for claiming to be God, using for himself the name that only God can use.

In the account of St. Mark, even the doubters and cynics acknowledge the kingship of Jesus, albeit derisively. The Roman soldiers engage him by mocking him and Pilate questions him by the title of king. It is a way of reminding us that everyone must ultimately deal with this question: either Jesus is or is not who he says he is. 

As C.S. Lewis put it, if he is not God and is only a man, then he is not even a good man. He is a liar, an imposter or delusional. At best, he must be ignored and at worst condemned and rejected. Indeed, that was the judgment of many of his contemporaries. But if he is who he says he is, then we must worship him and make him the center of our life because he is the only Savior we have. Savior from what, many of our own contemporaries may ask. This leads us back to the cross on which, as St. John would say, Jesus was “lifted up.” And by being “lifted up” for all to see, he is displayed to the whole world as its Savior.

The cross, from the view of Christian faith, is the ultimate sign of the fate of sinful humanity. It is where we all end up, ultimately, whatever the particulars of our suffering and death may entail in time. Everyone suffers. Everyone dies. “If the earth is our mother, the grave is our home,” as Cardinal George once said. “The world is a closed system turned in on itself. If Christ is risen from the grave and the Church is our mother, then our destiny reaches beyond space and time, beyond what can be measured and controlled.”

To get to the resurrection, however, we must encounter Good Friday, and the sign at its center: the cross. The stumbling block, the historical “scandal,” is to accept that what we are seeing there is not only a man who died, but our own selves, the sign of our own sins and our need for redemption from them. The irony of his being “lifted up” so high in this horrifying way is that Jesus IS the Savior of us all, whether we accept it, believe it, agree with it — or not. And this is a gift. Was it necessary? Only if WE need it, if our salvation is worth it. And is our eternal salvation a price too high to pay — for the sake of love?

 @AlbanyDiocese


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