Shadow of the Cross

“Numerous are the christians who experience a sense of relief as the liturgical cycle of the Passiontide and Holy Week passes away and they can turn to what they would call less somber spiritual thoughts. This half-conscious shrinking from a sustained and attentive contemplation of the passion of the Savior is not confined to the worldly and pleasure-loving amongst the faithful. It is, perhaps, a more pronounced characteristic in the case of the less superficial and the more thoughtful and reflective christians who have a consciousness that their lives are unworthy of their profession. These experience a certain discomfort…when the fulfillment of their religious duties obliges them to give their minds to a consideration of the final suffering and death of Jesus. In the realization of their sinfulness they find themselves a prey to the same sense of shame which a criminal would suffer from were he forced to look at tortures inflicted on an innocent man for crimes of which the onlooker was himself culpable. What man, not bereft of all feeling, would not undergo an inner conflict and agony of soul at the contemplation of another enduring the extreme of torture for crimes that were his, not the sufferer’s? Literature occasionally endeavors to portray the agonizing feelings of men placed in this predicament. The description is, as a rule, harrowing — the state of mind revealed, pitiful in the extreme — and this, too, where it is a question of men of criminal character and instincts. How much more poignant must necessarily be the pain of soul experienced by the average reflective christian who knows full well that it is for the expiation of is sins that the Innocent Savior is being treated with such barbarity! Any soul not devoid of generosity should feel all this with keen pain. But the discomfort and indefinable uneasiness that such persons feel, who are high-minded but whose lives are not what they ought to be, is not wholly explained by the spectacle presented by the innocent suffering in the place of the guilty.


“There is another and more profound cause. One who does not stop at the surface of things is obliged to sense in an unmistakable though dim manner that the Passion implies something more than a tragic ending that befell Jesus through the rage of the Jews and the vacillation of Pilate. It is felt in a vague manner that Jesus saw in the cross not something that came to Him through an unexpected conjuncture of circumstances, but something that perfectly harmonized with and was appropriate to the scheme of reality as He saw it. In a word, one shrinks from the conviction that is forced on one by the Passion, that the cross is not a mere accident in the life of one man but the forcible vivid and compelling expression of a theory of life for all men — as things now are. The thoughtful christian realizes that a mere sentimental sympathy for the sufferings of the Savior — a sympathy that costs nothing to the sympathizer — is a very hollow and futile thing. He knows, though he may not formulate his knowledge expressly, that a practical and effective sympathy with the Passion means an embracing of that theory of life of which the Passion is the expression. He knows that it calls for a rejection of that philosophy of life after which he lives, though it be not the one that he professes, namely, that ‘the world is made for the enjoyment of such a being as man and that man is put into it for the purpose of extracting as much enjoyment out of it as possible.’


“As has been pointed out, if events be regarded from the point of view of the sequence of natural causes and their effects, it is very disconcerting to human reason that a man who lived with the perfection with which Christ lived should die condemned as a criminal and amidst unheard-of tortures. It is all the more disconcerting if it be taken into account that His judge declared Him innocent and that those who clamored for his execution had received nothing but benefits at His hands. Yet when the story of Christ is unfolded to the minds of christians as yet unspoiled by worldliness or sophistry, the ending of the tale is not looked upon as incredible, considering what preceded it. Normally speaking, the first movement of the mind should be one of disbelief or, at least, doubt. It is truly remarkable that such a movement, in ordinary christian souls, is never experienced. There is in the depths of the christian consciousness some secret instinct which, running counter to all the natural laws of cause and effect, recognizes in the Passion a strange and mysterious harmony with the rest of the life of Jesus. This is not due merely to the psychological factor that one is born into the christian tradition, and that the human mind has become, in the course of ages, habituated to the sequence of events set forth in the Gospels. This is not so. The spontaneous and unquestioning acceptance of what in itself should prove bewildering to the reason is not a new thing. It has existed from the very beginning of christianity. It does not spring from such a superficial and material cause as heredity. Its source lies much deeper. It is found in the supernatural instincts generated in the soul by its incorporation with Christ through baptism. It is rooted in supernatural faith. The soul, enlightened by this divine virtue, recognizes an indefinable fitness, an inevitableness, as it were, in Christ’s dying on the cross. With this sense of the fitness of things in the case of Jesus is conjoined a secret conviction that if one’s own life is to approximate to the christian ideal it will necessarily retrace in some measure the features of the divine tragedy. It is dimly felt that though the cross came to Christ only because He permitted it, the cross must come to the christian of a necessity and the christian is not free to evade it if his life is to reflect, in some degree, the perfection of the life of the Son of God on earth. Christ had perfection of soul without the cross: there is a secret instinct which tells the christian that he cannot have perfection of soul without the cross. St. Paul knew full well that he would not be preaching Christ unless it were Christ crucified he preached. It was perfectly clear to him that ‘in the cross and Him Who hung upon it, all things meet — that the cross is the center and interpretation of all things’ (Newman).


“It is this obscure but intimate realization that the Passion is not a mere historical contingent fact, affecting one man, but a theory of life applicable to all men, that stirs uneasiness and a species of discomfort in the heart of the thoughtful and honest christian in face of the Passion and death of Christ. In language of stark and compelling simplicity the cross expresses the christian theory of life on earth, namely, that life here below is not a satisfaction but a purification. Every instinct of fallen human nature revolts against this theory. To it ‘the world seems made for the enjoyment of such a being as man, and man is put into it. He has the capacity of enjoyment, and the world supplies the means’ (Newman). This is the philosophy of the natural man; it is utterly different from the philosophy of the cross. Few there are who embrace wholeheartedly, at least in practice, the austere teaching of the crucifix. And yet the christian consciousness, in spite of the specious pleadings and reasonings of fallen nature, assents to its truth. The honest christian whose life is at variance with the philosophy of Christ must sense in the crucifix a reproach. He feels his life stands condemned in its presence. He knows that the Passion is not an isolated and accidental occurrence standing in violent contrast with all the rest of the life of Christ, but rather completely of a piece with it. He is well aware that it is Christ’s most forcible expression of His view of human existence, if human existence in the actual order of things is to issue in what God has planned that it should issue. In his christian consciousness the follower of Christ knows full well that suffering and conflict did not await the last days of the Savior’s mortal life in order to cross His path: it is borne in on him with a force that is irresistible, with a certitude that admits not even the shadow of a doubt, that hardship and pain dogged the Savior’s footsteps from the moment He set foot in His creation, and that, in very truth, as the author of the Imitation says, ‘the whole life of Christ was a cross and a martyrdom.’” (Fr. Edward Leen, In the Likeness of Christ, ch. 6)


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