As a minister, I’ve noticed that even the previously dependable Easter attendance bump has become not so dependable. It seems that I used to see more in town visitors or members on the margins who only come on holidays, but more and more it seems to be mostly out-of-town family. Among regular church attendees, you can usually count on them to be there on both Palm Sunday and Easter — celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry and then resurrection. But precious few come for anything during Holy Week — the week of the cross.
So even the faithful jump from light to light without entering the darkness. So many miss the cross.
This year, more than most years, we desperately need to look upon the cross because the cross doesn’t just tell us something about God, but something about ourselves.
Theologian Peter Rollins said that, at most, we may look at the cross in the same way we watch a horror movie. We have a false or manufactured sense of fear, but we know we’re safe.
We have been able to abstract the cross as only a symbol of our redemption. In one sense, it certainly is. It is on the cross, during his torture, that the incarnate Word of God says, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But it is, and must be, much more than that. We do not fully understand the cross until we are able to hear ourselves in the crowd that yelled, “crucify him,” and we have not fully looked upon the cross until we see there one whom we punished for daring to challenge that which we hold sacred.
We may have this abstract sense that, as the phrase goes, our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. But that is a truth to be taken much more literally and directly than it is often meant. We may think of our personal vices — our temptations, our anger, our cuss words — and see Jesus’ crucifixion as paying for those sins in some way or another. But this torturous execution was, more importantly, God ultimately exposing the human propensity for violence. The cross reveals a truth that we often cannot see or refuse to see: that the human race is willing to reserve our most heinous violence for a harmless prophet of peace, a modeler of forgiveness, a lover of the unlovable, and the one who exposes the fraud of our religious facades. All such things Jesus did among his contemporaries, and it got him in trouble with the most religious of observers.
The cross is an indictment of human violence. It was theologian Rene Girard that ignited this conversation with books like Violence and the Sacred. His work includes the somewhat complex “mimetic theory,” which contemporary theologian Tony Jones adapted and simplified to understand the cross in what he calls the “mirror model.” That is, on the cross, our own violence is mirrored back to us — the violence of our political systems, and our violence and scapegoating of society’s weakest. Jones writes, “As we see Jesus dying of the contagion of violence upon the cross, he’s saying to us, ‘This is what your rivalry and violence have wrought.’”
Oh yes, there is redemption. The story ends with resurrection. But we must first understand from what we are being redeemed. What happened on the cross is not just a symbol of our salvation but the cruelest and most unequivocal example of that from which we are being saved.
This year, as we look upon the cross, we must see our violence. If we do not, we keep ourselves at a safe distance from the obvious truth on full display in those outstretched arms.
Yes, it is condemnation of the violence we see around the world: the horrors of ISIS and Boko Haram, the heartbreaking sight of children gassed and bombed in Syria, the targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt. But the violence of another is violence that we cannot control. The cross calls us to see and hear our own violence.
We must face the violence of neglect and unconcern, expressed in our slogans of rage: “Go back home!” “Build the wall!” “**** the police!”
We must face our glorification of violence, most recently exemplified by how a cruise missile strike can draw bipartisan praise and unite media personalities of all stripes. Apparently, nothing brings us together like war and death — or ‘trusting in horses and chariots,’ as the psalmist would put it.
We must face the violence of our incomprehensibly selective sympathy and outrage. We are rightly horrified that a Syrian child would be gassed but remain nonchalant that another died on the shores of the Mediterranean because other countries don’t want more Muslims.
We expect 24-hour coverage of a terrorist attack but rarely even know when 93 Americans (on average) are killed every day by gun violence. As I write this, news is breaking of the shooting at San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School. Such tragedies, although the act of certain individuals, are symptomatic of our overall culture of violence and love of weapons.
Some of our violence is more indirect but no less consequential, like the violence we do to workers in our demand for cheap goods, or the violence we do to the environment (and thus ourselves) when we see the earth as ours to consume. The examples are many.
Oh, how we must see the cross this Holy Week. Now more than ever, it must serve as God’s mirror showing us our own violence.
Let us not shake our head in condemnation of those who shouted crucify him, because we are them. Let us not recoil in disbelief that Peter would deny Jesus three times, because we do the same upon learning that he challenges our quest for dominance and power. As long as we continue in our violence toward “the least of these,” our trust in that which destroys, and our affirmation of “an eye for an eye,” we are them.
Resurrection comes, but first, we must see the cross. Let us first mourn at the foot of the cross knowing that, were Jesus to appear among us today, we would do it again.
Only then can we experience the full weight and promise of resurrection.