Some years ago the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007), as he was preaching one day, told the story of three lads in Paris who decided to have a bit of fun at the expense of a local priest who was hearing confession. They decided to go in to the church and confess to outrageous sins in order to see the priests reaction. One of the boys was from a Jewish background – and when his turn came he confessed to some outrageous behaviour. By this time, having seen at least one of the other lads, the old Priest was aware of the prank – so he said to the boy – ‘I want you to do a penance. I want you to walk up to the East end of the church where there is a large statue of Jesus on a cross. I want you to look at Jesus and say three times ‘Jesus I know you died for me but I don’t give a damn’. The lad who was still playing his own game thought of this as a bit of a laugh and obeyed. On arrival at the cross he looked up and said – ‘Jesus I know you died for me but I don’t give a damn’. Then he said it a second time – but when he tried to say it a third time he couldn’t and broke down in tears. He left the church a changed person. The Cardinal telling the story said – ‘The reason I know that story is true is that I was that young man’.
Over that last few months I have been meditating in my reading and listening to matters concerning the cross. I have come away, among many other things, with two impression as to how the cross is viewed by many. One is that there are those, mainly in the western protestant tradition, who treat the subject of the cross at an academic level, devoid of passion and emotion – even some who speak flippantly about their various ‘theories of the atonement’. On the other hand there are those, primarily from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions who approach the mystery of the cross in a much more contemplative, reverential manner and with deep humility. There are of course exceptions to this rule.
Treating matters surrounding the death of Christ and the cross as nothing more than theories to be debated, accepted or rejected on the whim of our chosen theological persuasion or point of view is, I find, highly offensive. I suspect God finds it equally so.
While in prison for his faith, the well known Romanian Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand, met a Russian pastor from the Underground Church, who had never seen a whole New Testament. Wurmbrand takes up the story –
‘Systematically, I began to explain to him the teaching about the Godhead, about its unity in three Persons, the teaching about original sin, about the Fall, about salvation, about the Church, about the sacraments, about the Bible as infallible revelation. He listened attentively. When I had finished, he asked me a most surprising question: “Have those who thought out these theological systems and wrote them down in such perfect order ever carried a cross?” He went on. “A man cannot think systematically even when he has a bad toothache. How can a man who is carrying a cross think systematically? But a Christian has to be more than the bearer of a heavy cross; he shares Christ’s crucifixion. The pains of Christ are his, and the pains of all creation. There is no grief and no suffering in the whole world which should not grieve him also. If a man is crucified with Christ, how can he think systematically? Can there be that kind of thought on a cross?”.’
As a young man, before the fall of communism in Romania, Brian Morgan, who is today Pastor of Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino, California, travelled secretly to Romania where he met Traian Dorz, the well known leader of the ‘Army of the Lord’ revival movement in that nation. Dorz had, up to that point, spent some 16 years in Communist prisons. Brian Morgan takes up his story –
‘When I saw him I felt my own unworthiness and sin – but he had these eyes of love that drew you to him. Then he looked me in the eye and said – you teach about the cross, we live under the cross. Then he did a very tender thing – he put his cheek next to mine and prayed for me (in Romanian). It tore my heart like water – I didn’t need a translation – I knew he was praying that I would experience a measure of the love he experienced in prison suffering under the cross – that I might know the height, breadth and depth of the love of Christ.’
Of course few of us today in the West, at the moment anyway, are forced to carry the kind of cross that Richard Wurmbrand, Traian Dorz and others did under the cruel yoke of Communism. That is not to say for a moment that some of us do not bear that same cross every day in our lives of loneliness, rejection, pain, depression and loss – to mention only a few of the things that can unite us to the Suffering One.
But in it all the cross of Christ is never simply a theory to be coldly discussed and dissected – but a reality, a place of union and a place of deep healing. For certain it is also a place of contemplation where we become eternally present in wonder, gratitude, thankfulness and surrender. However, whatever else the cross might be to us today – may never be just a theory – but may we, as we stand at the foot of the cross, beholding the Beloved, be transformed as we do so in to the image and likeness of Christ. (Romans 8:29-30)
The story of Cardinal Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger was told by Anglican bishop N. T. Wright.