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Fourth Sunday of Lent - The Challenge of the Cross

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16.19-23; Psalm 136; Eph. 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

One of the more alarming aspects of being human is that often we are not very good at it. For G.K. Chesterton, this is what makes the doctrine of original sin so eminently plausible. We might, he says in the The Religious Doubts of Democracy (1903), try to dissuade our friend from swallowing his tenth whiskey by slapping him on the back and encouraging him to “be a man”. No one, however, attempts to dissuade a crocodile from swallowing its tenth explorer by slapping it on the back and exclaiming, “come on, be a crocodile”. The reason, of course, is that the crocodile is a predator. We expect crocodiles to hunt and to kill for food. Our notion of what it means to be a good crocodile includes the possibility of explorers being eaten in certain circumstances. We attach no blame to the crocodile if it behaves in this manner. In contrast, human beings can choose to behave in ways that are beneath them. We say that certain actions are ‘inhuman’. We can choose to live a diminished kind of human life, indeed, this is exactly what happens when we choose evil. Christianity, in Christ, gives us the model of a full, complete, a perfect human life. To sin, then, is deliberately reject this fullness of humanity in favour of a diminished or truncated human life. To sin is to reject what you are, it is to choose a less ambitious, an incomplete definition of human life and being.

For Chesterton, the acceptance of truncated and incomplete visions of human nature by a community inevitably has disastrous consequences. In our first reading from the second book of Chronicles, for example, we see the people of Judah attempting to go it alone. They abandoned the law and the ‘boundary markers’ that distinguished them as the chosen people of God. They desecrated the temple, the place where God dwelled. They ignored the words of the prophets and attempted to free themselves from Babylonian influence by military means. The fruit of this attempt to blaze their own trail and construct their own definition of human life and being instead of the one given by God in the law, the consequence of this flight from their own humanity was violence, destruction, and exile. The temple was destroyed, Israel lost its inheritance as children of God and was enslaved. Like all sin, their rebellion concluded in a degradation of their dignity as human persons.

This exile, the loss of the Promised Land, is yet another repeat of a theme that recurs throughout the Old Testament. It is yet another fall from grace, a repetition of the sin of Adam and Eve that obliged them to leave Eden, a repetition of the tower of Babel that led to the scattering and division of the human race, a repeat of the grumblings of the desert and their associated wanderings for forty years. All these ‘falls from grace’, all these ‘original sins’ are summed up, and in an important sense given a depth of meaning, by the crucifixion. The cross of Christ is not only a revelation of God’s love, it is also a revelation of the reality of sin, it is a revelation of the consequences of sin and the true state of humanity. Human nature is on the cross because human beings reject God’s offer of friendship and love. Human nature is suffering because human beings have not dared to be what God intended us to be. Human nature is tortured because human beings have not dared to accept, or to accept fully, the gift of divine life in Christ.

Yet this is not the whole story. When we look again at the ‘falls from grace’, the ‘original sins’ of the Old Testament, we find that God responds to the infidelity of his people with an act of creation. Time after time we see God acting to restore His relationship with his people; God acts to overcome the ruptures, the damage, of sin. For example, our first reading concludes with a command from Cyrus, King of Persia, that the Jews return to the Promised Land, and that their Temple be rebuilt. Israel did not earn its return from exile, this was a gift from God, and his chosen instrument for offering this gift was a pagan King. We see another example In chapter 21 of the book of Numbers: here God punishes the grumbling of his people by sending fiery serpents among them, but even while he punishes, God offers a cure. The Israelites survive the deadly bite of the fiery serpents by gazing at a bronze serpent held aloft by Moses. Healing comes to Israel when it gazes upon and acknowledges the true consequences of its sin. The sign of Israel’s infidelity becomes the sign of its healing.

It is this incident with the bronze serpent that Jesus alludes to in today’s gospel. Jesus tells us ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3: 14). Christ was ‘lifted up’ for all to see on the cross. Christ becomes the sign of humanity’s rejection of its own nature and vocation. Christ becomes the sign of humanity’s rejection of God himself. This is why the cross sums up and adds meaning to all our falls from grace. It gathers to itself all of our sin, we might even go so far as to say that the crucifixion of Christ is the form of all sin. Yet Jesus was also lifted up at the Resurrection and the Ascension. When we accept the cross, when we accept what the cross communicates, when we accept both the reality of our sin and the love of God, then we are also raised up to new life with Christ. By God’s grace we become a new creation, restored to friendship with God and raised up to share in the eternal and infinite love of the Trinity.

The cross is, then, to borrow an idea from Timothy McDermott, a ‘bifurcation’ in human history. At Calvary God confronts Man with the truth: the truth of his love, and the true meaning of our sin. The cross obliges us to choose: we can either accept the distorted vision of humanity that underpins sin and darkness, the crucified humanity that is the fruit of our rejection of God; or we can accept fullness of life in Christ by becoming united with Christ, by sharing his death so we can rise with Him at the Resurrection. Today’s gospel suggests that the basis of our choice will be our willingness to accept the truth. Christ tells us ‘whoever lives the truth will come to the light’. If we recognize the evil in our lives for what it really is: sin, then we will also see that this truth brings with it the possibility of forgiveness. As the first letter of St John puts it, if we confess our sins, he will forgive us our sins and lead us to all righteousness’ (1 John 1: 9). On the other hand, St. John also tells that ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (I John 1:8). We cannot be healed unless we acknowledge our need for healing. We cannot be forgiven unless we acknowledge that we need forgiveness.

Nicholas Crowe OP

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