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Love that Transforms All Things: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried

September 15, 2013

adorationofthecrossbWith this Sunday’s post on the Nicene Creed, we come to what is arguably the central tenet of our faith. It is also an article of faith that has the power to transform our core beliefs about human existence, suffering, and even death. When the triune God enters human history as He did in the Incarnation and particularly the Crucifixion, human calculations about what it means to be human, what is the significance of suffering, and what is the ultimate meaning of death change forever.

In the Gospel of Saint John is written one of the most consoling and powerful passages of Holy Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.”

From the perspective of the ancient fathers, it is indeed strange how some historical figures have interpreted the crucifixion in terms of divine justice and the appeasement of God’s wrath. After all, Saint Isaac the Syrian said that there is no mention of justice in the teachings of Christ. For the ancient fathers, the crucifixion, suffering, and burial of Christ were to be understood in Johannine fashion as a super abundance of divine compassion, humility, and love. God assumed human nature, mine and yours, precisely in order to overcome our estrangement from Him. His voluntary crucifixion, suffering, and burial transfigured what had been the “wages of sin” into a gateway opening up to eternal life and communion with God. Prior to our Lord’s crucifixion on the hill of Calvary, a cross was an instrument of cruel torture and abasement. Before our Savior’s scourges on Holy Friday, suffering was seen as senseless punishment. Prior to the Master’s burial in a garden tomb, death was as inevitable as it was meaningless. All of this, however, was transformed when the Lord Christ voluntarily suffered for us and for our salvation. Christ Himself had foreshadowed this transformation when He told His disciples: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.” And indeed, what one would think would repel instead attracts, because of the divine Person Who was lifted up on the Cross. The mystery of all mysteries is that His cross, His suffering, and His death embraces our crosses, our suffering, and our death and in so doing changes them infusing them with His love for us and invigorating us with our love for Him.

If we believe the fathers’ teaching that love is the hermeneutical key to Christ’s crucifixion, the cross gives radically new meaning to suffering and death, for they no longer demonstrate the futility of human existence, but instead reveal a startling truth: every human path, however painful and full of sorrows, can potentially lead to newness of life and freedom of spirit. There is no obstacle; there is no suffering; there is no death that can get in the way if they can but be linked to the Cross of Christ. In fact, just when our life seems hardest, just when our suffering appears to be greatest, just when death ominously threatens us at the door, Christ’s crucifixion and death enable us to see a sign of a new and unending spring, the very hope of our salvation. His suffering united to our sufferings, His Cross united to our crosses, His death united to our death, form a bridge carrying us over to the other shore, where there is no suffering, no sighing, but life everlasting.

Who Christ is—as perfect God and perfect man—is what enables His crucifixion, suffering, and burial to be what they were, divinely-human mysteries that could transform death into life, earth into heaven, the most harrowing hell into the most blissful paradise. In one sense, Anselm was right that God is the only One who could transform death into life. However, his interpretation was in error. Christ’s suffering was not an act of divine justice, but an offering of divine love to each of us with our own sins and struggles. If Anselm had been correct, suffering and death would have remained the just punishment for sin. Our situation wouldn’t have changed under the Anselmian interpretation. Thank heavens, scripture and the teaching of the fathers tell a different story. The cross becomes for us an instrument of healing in the midst of our own suffering. In his letter, the Apostle Peter wrote about his own experience as a witness to Christ’s suffering: “Who His own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Peter himself came to know the healing power of Christ’s suffering a few short days after he had denied Christ three times. When Christ spoke to Peter after the crucifixion, He did not speak in terms of punishment for his sin of denial, but asked him, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” The Lord knew that Peter loved Him, but He asked Peter in order to encourage Peter to draw himself as close as possible to the source of healing in Christ’s passion, the love of God. The scars of Peter’s denial in the garden would remain, but Peter was able to reinterpret them in the light of Christ’s abundant love for him, love so overwhelmingly manifest in His suffering and death. Peter needed only to recognize that transfiguring and transforming love in order to be healed.

The same is true in our own lives. Like Peter, we too have experienced trauma and suffering. Yet, in that trauma and suffering is an opportunity to embrace the new reality made possible through Christ’s suffering. To that end, we need to draw as close as we can to the passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ. This is precisely the opposite of what normally is suggested by therapists. Usually with trauma, obsessing about it makes a person fearful, agitated, and trapped at the worst possible moment. Acquiring an objective distance from the trauma seems to be the only way to gain some perspective and relative freedom. Not so with the mystery of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and death. Only by drawing near to that mystery can one be warmed by Christ’s boundless love, feel secure in His trustworthy hands, feel peaceful at His Holy feet, and discover the freedom in every situation to move towards His light that knows no evening.

In our own trials and suffering, we can be united to the One who draws all men to Himself. In our present circumstances, suffering not only reminds us that Christ has conquered all that is evil and all that causes suffering, but that He is there with us, loving us, pouring out His divine life for us, and drawing us to Himself. Our suffering is no longer pointless, because His suffering was so meaningful. We need not be afraid. We need not be troubled. We are loved more than we could ever possibly love in return. And in that love, life and death, mortality and eternity are all transformed, so that we can say about our own suffering, crosses, and death: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God Who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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