What the Resurrection Requires: The Via Crucis

painting, bacon, cruciixion
'Three Studies for a Crucifixion,' 1962, Francis Bacon. Guggenheim Collection.

Expressing his desire to paint a crucifixion scene, Édouard Manet once heralded the depth and power of the cross as a symbol: “The Crucifixion, what a symbol! One could search until the end of time and find nothing comparable. Minerva is fine, Venus is fine. But the heroic image, the image of love can never be worth as much as the image of sorrow. That is the root of human nature – in it is the poem.” [1]

Representations of the cross are inked into our skin, adorn our necks, and hang on the walls of churches and museums alike. Though this symbol is woven into our cultural imagination, depictions or even discussions of the cross have not always been considered appropriate.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, mention of crucifixion was to be avoided in polite conversation. Cicero describes the common view of crucifixion as crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium – a most cruel and disgusting punishment – such that “to bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is – What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.” He goes on to say that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” [2]

The cross was even more scandalous to the first-century Jewish community. In addition to its inherent repulsion, the cross carried significant theological implications as well. The book of Deuteronomy is explicitly clear: anyone hung on a tree is cursed by God (21:23). Citing this verse in Galatians 3:13, it is clear that St. Paul admits no difference between a tree and a cross. For the Jewish imagination, the cross was far worse than merely a brutal mode of execution. It was also symbol of God’s judgment. [3]

Given these negative connotations, it is fascinating that the cross became the symbol of Christianity. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime around the second century that the cross earned primacy of place as the central symbol of the Christian faith displacing other symbols like the icthus (“fish”) and chi-rho (first two letters in Christos, the Greek word for Messiah). [4]

Over the centuries, however, the cross as symbol has lost its power and potency.

This is perhaps most evident after viewing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Apart from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, I know of no other piece of art that captures the savagery of the cross like this film. The shock and repugnance experienced by viewers confronted with the bloodiness and brutality of the crucifixion depicted in The Passion demonstrates the extent to which the cross has been sanitized in the contemporary consciousness. The brutality of the cross needs to be resurrected in our cultural imagination.

The first words rolling out of mouths ought to be “the horror, the horror.” Instead, they are so often, “hallelujah! hallelujah!” Both are appropriate but the order matters immensely. Indeed, the nails have long rusted away and the splinters have been worn down. Time and familiarity have become like gall and have taken the edge off.

The cross is a symbol of death but it has become a dead symbol. The blood and sweat have been plated over in 14-karat gold, hung on a chain, and sold beside wedding rings. Jewelry stores have become graveyards of the symbolic – symbols go there to die. Never before have the symbols been more expensive; never before have they been so cheap.

So what is the way forward? The solution is not reconceptualization but re-enactment. The way forward is the via crucis – the way of the cross.

This is a hard road and altogether undesirable. Jesus was not joking when he said that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:14)

It makes very good sense, therefore, why no one looks forward to taking up their cross. Jesus, himself, desired that “this cup might pass.” Jesus “did want to accept the Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want the cross itself.” [5]

A guttural reaction of flight from the cross is both normal and healthy. To desire the cross actually makes you unlike Jesus. Desiring the gruesome work of picking up your cross is more an indication of naiveté or sadism or insanity than it is holiness. The cross is uniformly undesirable. Let us not forget: it is a cross.

It is not the cross but obedience that we’re after. In this ravaged and broken world in which we live, the cross is (unfortunately) the means of obedience. Via obedientis est via crucis – the way of obedience is the way of the cross.

This has never been a popular message. Instead, what we so often get is something like this: “The heart of salvation is the Cross of Christ. The reason salvation is so easy to obtain is that it cost God so much.” [6]

In one sense this is true. But, in another sense, it is dangerously misleading. Salvation is actually not easy. It is work and hard work at that (Phil 2:12-13). The way of Jesus not just cognitive assent to the truth of the resurrection but a walk of life that follows in the footsteps of Jesus with our own cross in tow. There’s a reason why Jesus prefaced his commission “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” with the words “Peace be with you” (John 20:21).

Christ wasn’t crucified in order that we don’t have to be. On the contrary, “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [7] As Luther and Lewis wrote, every Christian is to become a little Christ. [8]

To be clear, Christians don’t save themselves but are saved by the costly love of Jesus on the cross. But this no easy salvation. The Christian life is characterized by cruciformity.

The cross is on both sides of the resurrection. The road leading to the empty tomb and the road leading from it are one and the same. That road is what the resurrection requires: it is the via crucis, the way of the cross.

 

[1] Quoted in John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church (Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2004),  105.
[2] Quoted in John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 30.
[3] An example of this is the killing of Absalom in 2 Samuel. Despite David’s admonition to deal gently with his son (2Sam 18:5), Joab and then his armor bearers kill Absalom as he hangs from the branches of an oak tree (2Sam 18:14-15). To Joab, this was a clear sign divine judgment and so he disregarded King David’s request in favor of obedience to God.
[4] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 27.
[5] Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: Continuum, 2010), 93.
[6] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, April 6 entry (italics mine). This year, this was the entry for the Monday immediately after Resurrection Sunday.
[7] Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23 (adds “daily”)
[8] Martin Luther, On Christian Freedom, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 84 and C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 177.

 

Article by Kevin Antlitz

 

 

 

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