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How to make sense of his death on the Cross?

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LAST week I invited you to walk with me in the steps of Jesus Christ during the last weeks of his life on earth. Will you keep me company again today, please?

We start with a conundrum: how to make sense of Jesus’s last acts, of his trial and death on the Cross? Because the scientific culture dominates our way of thinking, we tend to think that the best explanation for anything is the most literal. Stick to the facts, then. Yes, but a fact without its interpretation is just a brute fact. We must ask what these facts, these events, mean.

Typically, we are interested in quantities, weights, measures, how much? How fast? How far? But the quantitative perspective is one-track, limiting, accurate in a narrow sort of way but stultifying to the imagination. Other ages were more poetic. They rejoiced in allegory: the Church as the Bride of Christ; God himself as a mother hen. And the Cross of Christ as the Tree of Life.

And so it is. Symbolically our Fall came through our eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And there in Eden was that other Tree. Not mentioned again until Christian poets recognised it for what it is: The Cross of Christ. As the Tree of Knowledge brought death, so the Tree of Life, the Cross, brings life.

Scientific truth is not the same thing as religious truth. Scientific truth is exact, but provisional, always susceptible to amendment. It was put vividly by T H Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’:‘The great tragedy of science: the most beautiful hypothesis slain by one brute fact.’

Religious truth is not provisional. It is eternal because it concerns the relationship between God and human nature. And God and human nature do not change. But religious truth is not literal either. It is not one-track. For instance, You must be born again is not meant to be understood as a once-off, as some revivalists vainly believe. It means you have to be born again and again and again. As St Paul puts it, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. Daily.We are asked to use our imagination.

Religious truth is paradoxical. An interesting word, paradox. It comes from two Greek words para and doxa: para meaning by the side of as in parallel lines and doxa meaning opinion. So a paradox is two opinions side by side. But doxa also means glory – so a paradox is something that is by the side of glory.

And religious truth has to be paradoxical because what it deals with is way beyond our ordinary understanding. Religious truth is hammered out of apparent contradiction. So Christ is both Good Shepherd and Lamb of God. He is both God and Man. Mary is Virgin and Mother. In the midst of life we are in death. And at the foot of the Cross we see that the Blessed One is cursed. For the Bible says: ‘Cursed be everyone that hangeth upon a tree.’

This is the horror of the Crucifixion. Not that Jesus endured a few hours of terrible pain – agonising though it was. But that He who was without sin was punished as a criminal. That God who is the origin of all goodness was treated as evil. Remember the outrageous irony that Jesus, God with us, was accused of blasphemy. There is no religious truth without paradox. It is paradox that unites the opposites and shows us the workings of the Divine economy. When God wants to bring about supreme good, he starts not where we might start – given such an awesome task – with something that’s pretty good already. He starts with the worst. When he wants to give life to men, he starts with the death of God.

And so we see in the Passion narratives in the gospels a dramatic paradox which would be laughable if the situation were not so dire. Here is a man dying on a Cross promising eternal life to a thief next to him who is dying also. This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise. Is this a sick joke, or what?

Actually, Our Lord’s words to the penitent thief teach us the truth about Christ. First let me tell you lies about Christ. Millions of decent people of good will, thousands of churchgoers even, do not believe that Christ is the Son of God. They give him the credit for being a very good sort, a sound teacher, the founder of a system of morality. But this is not the Christ of the gospels. Here is the Christ of the gospels, the real Christ, today promising eternal life even as he himself is dying.

This is not some moral philosopher, or even a jolly good fellow. This is the one who casts out devils, raises the dead and says Before Abraham was, I AM. You may not believe a word of this. Then you have the right not to be a Christian. But if you do think Christ was a mere teacher of morals – like Socrates or John Stuart Mill – you are not a Christian as the faith has always been proclaimed and understood. To be a Christian is to recognise Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word by whom all things were made.

Jesus was no mere teacher of righteousness. He is our righteousness. The alternatives have been nicely set out for us: You can’t have Jesus of Nazareth as just a good guy. He was mad. He was bad. Or he is God.

We have only what the New Testament says about him. Take it or leave it.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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