by Herold Weiss
It would seem that in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion a scene is missing. None of them tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus being crucified, one of them (we would think that it should have been Peter) said, “Everything is going ahead according to plan. Let’s go home and wait for Sunday.” On the contrary, all the gospels tell us that at the crucifixion the disciples were all disoriented, and that on Sunday, confronted with the fact that Jesus was alive, they were greatly surprised. We have been left to choose from among unsavory explanations. Either the disciples were really dumb and did not get what Jesus was plainly telling them all along, or the presentation of the life of Jesus as a pre-established march to the cross is the product of theological reflection. Mark’s Gospel is obviously aware of the problem and goes out of its way to paint the disciples as really dumb. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written using Mark as a source, take pains to make the disciples look a bit more attractive.
Undoubtedly, for the early disciples who went out to proclaim the salvation brought about by the cross and the resurrection, the crucifixion was very problematic from a public relations standpoint. Paul admits it was a curse to the Jews and nonsensical to the Greeks.
In Christian theological reflection, however, it was essential to the salvation of humankind. It had been determined before the foundation of the world. When Jesus was born, he was destined to die on a cross. We have all seen marvelous paintings from the Renaissance onward of the Madonna and Child with baby John the Baptist beside them holding a miniature cross for Jesus’ benefit. In other words, it had been preordained that Jesus would die on a cross. In the gospels Jesus says, “It is necessary that the Son of Man” or “The Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Philosophically, things may be classified as either contingent or necessary. What made the death of Christ on the cross necessary? Was there no other way for the Almighty to save humanity? I would think that if God is Almighty God could have saved the world in thousands of other ways. Some would argue that all things in this world are contingent on other things.
What made the cross of Christ necessary, it would seem, was theological reflection on the fact that the Risen One had died on a cross. For the first disciples to understand this unforeseeable, disqualifying, horrendous, dishonorable death as part of the life of the Risen Lord was to conceive it as willed by an Almighty God who knows and controls everything in the universe. For Jesus’ contemporaries it would have been impossible to worship a God in whose universe the agent of salvation suffers crucifixion against God’s will. For the disciples the Roman execution needed to be imagined theologically. In this process conflicting metaphors became useful. His cross was a sacrifice, the ransom payment, the down payment, the lifting up of the serpent in the desert, the glorification (talk about an oxymoron!), the harrowing of hell, etc. All this made perfect sense to ancients who lived in a traditional culture where security was dependent on things being set firmly on what God wills.
For us moderns, or post-moderns, however, this is not very comforting. We find it difficult to worship a God who is not just, and in our vision of justice the freedom of individuals is essential to our humanity. This means that a Jesus who lacks freedom is not quite a human being. If he was born with everything predetermined –born to die on a cross– we find him rather less than a full human confronted with the pressure of making choices facing an open future. To face a closed future in which the only way out is a cross is not just. It dehumanizes the person required to live under such conditions. While for Jesus’ contemporaries the human ideal was to live life as it had been fated, the Stoics would say “according to nature,” for us it is to exercise freedom. For them freedom was limited to specific relationships. For us freedom is an inalienable right. We find it hard to think of Jesus without it. Did Jesus go through life having to make only one choice which, once he made it correctly, left him in a state of static perfection? Did he not have to go through the normal human stages of development facing the choices appropriate to them? Did he end up on a cross because it had been determined from before the foundation of the world that he must? Or because, on account of the choices he made as a full human, he developed a character and determined for himself the highest standard of integrity? How these questions are answered depends on whether one thinks of them historically or theologically. Thinking theologically, like the evangelists do in their gospels, the answers to these questions are not necessarily historically precise. But here we are not in search of an explanation. What we wish for is understanding of the ways of God, and that can be obtained only imaginatively, creatively, metaphorically. That is what is really marvelous about the cross. The cross is the ultimate symbol because no one is tempted to think that it accomplished our salvation on account of its actuality (unless, of course, you are Mel Gibson). As a Roman execution it was just one more historical event. As the death that was determined before the foundation of the world, it destroyed the power of death over humanity for the believers of the first century. For those of us who think that Jesus used his freedom to discover his vocation and to chose his future, because otherwise he would not have been a human like us, his crucifixion confronts us with the need to reformulate creatively, imaginatively and metaphorically the meaning of this most central of symbols.
(Herold Weiss is author of Energion title Finding My Way in Christianity: Recollections of a Journey.)