There are a great many “good” things we can say about the cross of Christ on this “Good” Friday. What took place there was complex, multi-layered, and rich with a variety of meanings.
One of these levels of meaning sees Christ on the cross as an example for us to emulate—the supreme example of servanthood and self-giving, sacrificing the narrow interests of one in order to bring great blessing to many. The eternal Word, the One who was with God at creation, and was himself God, in the words of St Paul, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”. Taking the form of a servant. The notion of “servant leadership” is very much in fashion these days. I’m not only speaking of the church, where one might expect servant leadership to get at least a good bit of lip service. And I’m not speaking only of government positions—both elected and appointed—where the expression “public service” has a long history. In fact, servant leadership has a strong foothold in that most pragmatic, non-idealistic, bottom line-oriented arena: the world of business. Top management gurus are touting servant leadership as not only a good thing to do, or the right thing to do, but as the most effective, profit-making, thing to do. And there can be no more effective example of servant leadership than the voluntary self-offering of Jesus on the cross.
Another level of meaning for the cross is as an image, an illustration, of the magnitude of God’s love for us. God is infinite and holy, and so it can be enormously difficult for us who are finite and sinful to even conceive of God, let alone God’s love. When we allow ourselves to dwell too exclusively on those passages of scripture that paint a vivid picture of the righteous wrath of God —God’s justifiable anger—we can easily develop an attitude that sees God as chronically irritated with us. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross is a balancing corrective to that attitude. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the painting that seems to answer an unspoken question, “Lord, how much do you love me?” The painting depicts Jesus hanging on the cross, with his arms outstretched. There’s a caption that reads, “I love you this much.” The cross is an illustration of the breadth and depth of God’s love. He loves us “this much.”
But as good and as true as these explanations of the meaning of the cross of Christ are, they are not in themselves adequate. They buckle under the load of what this day—this Friday we call “good”—is about. If the cross is only an example of sacrificial servanthood, then it is of no help to us, because we have no hope being able to fully emulate that example. We’ve never had the option of “counting equality with God a thing to be grasped” because we were never equal with God in the first place. No other human being can possibly be as humble as Christ, because no one else has “traveled”—so to speak—as far as he has to descend to the humility he manifests on the cross. The higher one is to begin with, the lower one can fall. None of us, therefore, can truly imitate Jesus’ example of humility, of servanthood.
And knowing that God loves us “this much” is comforting. I don’t want for a second to diminish the power of that illustration. But when we remove the layer of sentimentality that accompanies the image, what exactly are we left with? What does it actually do for us? It’s like telling a person who’s gravely ill, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be just fine.” Those are encouraging words, and very welcome in the moment. But they are no substitute for actual medical treatment that results in more favorable lab work or X-rays or whatever. We need more than encouraging words to be able to really call this Friday “good.”
So I’m here to tell you: The cross is more than an example for us to inadequately attempt to emulate. The cross is more than an illustration of the extent of God’s love. The cross is itself God’s love in action, God’s love, as it were, “on the job.” It is the peak, the summit, of God’s love. The cross is itself God’s ultimate act of love for us, because, on the cross, God becomes vulnerable. In many years of walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent, my attention has been frequently arrested at the Tenth Station, the one where Jesus is stripped of his garment, his seamless robe. Now, when we see illustrations of the crucifixion, Jesus is wearing a discreet loincloth. But, from the information I’ve gathered, there’s a very good chance that the Roman soldiers did not leave him even with that small dignity. Crucifixion was not meant merely to put a person to death; one blow of a sword could accomplish that much quite a bit more efficiently. Rather, crucifixion was intended to utterly humiliate the condemned person in the process. And what is more humiliating that being exposed, stark naked, several feet off the ground, for all the world to see. People could say things and throw things and the person on the cross had no defense. As he hung there, Jesus was completely vulnerable. And only by being completely vulnerable could he absorb everything “we” had to throw at Him. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were. Each of us was there. We were the ones hurling the insults. As we sing in one of the most powerful of our Passiontide hymns: “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.” In his naked vulnerability, Jesus absorbed the whole force of human sin, the whole force of cosmic evil. Rather than reflecting it back, he absorbed it, and in absorbing it, he disarmed it, he neutralized it, he defanged it. Jesus on the cross is a veritable “black hole” for sin and evil. They go in, but they don’t come out. They are, in fact, transformed, and we realize in the end that evil itself doesn’t exist in its own right; it is only the distortion of good.
Christmas is the first sign of God’s vulnerability. He is present with as a baby, a helpless infant. On Good Friday, that sign is lit up, in the brightest neon, for all the world to see. The words of the sixth century poet Venatius Honorius Fortunatus capture this image of the cross as an emblem of light: “The royal banners forward go, the cross shines forth in mystic glow, where he through whom our flesh was made, in that same flesh our ransom paid. … O tree of beauty, tree most fair, ordained those holy limbs to bear, gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough proclaims the king of glory now.”