The news broke Monday that there had been a shooting at an elementary school in San Bernardino. Images of Sandy Hook—slain children and teachers littering hallways and classrooms—flooded my imagination.
Within minutes media outlets had clarified the incident. A man had barged into a classroom, shot his estranged wife, and then taken his own life. A murder-suicide.
Initially, I felt relief. No children had been targeted.
Almost immediately, my relief gave way to dismay and a deep moral weariness.
I have grown so accustomed to the violence and suffering of the world that I was able to find consolation in a supposedly lesser horror. The story of a man’s homicidal violence against a woman has become so familiar that, at least by comparison to the slaughter of children, its power to shock me has diminished.
(Later I learned that the man had in fact killed one of the special needs students and wounded another.)
I wondered about this creeping numbness to others’ misery and grief. As the world’s body count mounts, how far will it go? Will I someday hear about a mass killing at an elementary school and be relieved that the rest of the city was spared?
It occurred to me that, if I made my home along the ruined streets of Aleppo, Syria, the corpses buried beneath the rubble might no longer disturb me. Those ruined bodies would no longer seem to me to be the hyperactive neighbor boy, the kind widow, or the generous grocer. They might simply be part of the debris to which I’ve grown accustomed.
Jesus calls us—Jesus calls me—to be more than this. And his call is set sharply in relief during Holy Week. For during this week, our attention will be fixed on the cross of Christ.
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Jesus sends his followers into the world to continue the work of the cross. So let’s devote some time to understanding the meaning of the cross.
The meaning of the cross emerges when we look back to the manger and look forward to the empty tomb.
Let’s start with what happened in the manger by asking an age-old question. Why did God become a human being?
Various Catholic and Protestant thinkers have seen Jesus as God’s Plan B. God sent Jesus to die for our sins. Had there been no sin, they say, there would have been no Jesus. Jesus was God’s repair kit.
Franciscan theologians offer an alternative yet still orthodox view. John Duns Scotus, for instance, argued that Jesus was actually Plan A. When God decided to bring the world into being, Jesus was God’s very first thought.
In Jesus, the divine and the human are so intimately woven together as to be inseparable. Through Jesus, the divine is made one with everything else. In other words, atonement—at-one-ment—was God’s motive for creating everything.
God created aardvarks and black holes, dolphins and protons, lady bugs and wild azaleas, you and me for Jesus. God accomplished at-one-ment in the birth and the entire life of Jesus.
Some thinkers have limited Christ’s atoning sacrifice to the crucifixion. But what I’m trying to get across is that each instant of Jesus’ life is an atoning sacrifice. The cross simply crystallizes that for us.
I’ll explain by looking more closely at what we mean by “sacrifice.”
In some Christian circles, “sacrifice” is taken to be synonymous with “punishment” or “slaughter.” You’ve probably heard something like this before: Jesus received the punishment we deserve.
In other words, some preachers and teachers have interpreted Jesus’ suffering as the bloody penalty required to satisfy God’s sense of justice.
By contrast, I invite you to consider that a sacrifice is a freely given, deliberate offering. Jesus devoted himself to God’s dream of union with all things and all people in every moment of his life, no matter how great the cost to him. On the cross, Jesus’ devotion to God’s dream cost him his earthly life.
On the cross we see with jarring clarity what is true of each moment of Jesus’ life. Nothing can deter Jesus from pursuing the divine dream of the union of all with all in the love of their Maker.
God vindicated Jesus’ sacrifice by raising him from death to life eternal. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice sweeps up into itself our own haphazard, halting offerings.
Jesus’ resurrection promises us that God will work through every life devoted to the divine dream to make God’s dream a reality. Even when we seem to stumble or fail, even when we suffer and mourn as a result of our devotion, God will work through us.
When we love what God loves, God’s love flows through us to make the Kingdom of Heaven a reality on earth. And God loves the brokenhearted and the victimized. The spiritually shattered and the physically ruined. The bruised, the battered. The displaced and the dismantled.
On the cross we see that Jesus refuses to keep a safe distance from our suffering. He will do whatever it takes not only to soothe the suffering of this present moment, but to bring into being a world in which such suffering is no more.
Jesus calls us to do the same. To take up our cross and follow him. And his resurrection infuses us with the hope that our suffering will end in a new creation.