fragments of the Cross

This year I am giving the Triduum reflections in the Monastery guesthouse. Below is the second of three reflections. I’ll post  the third tomorrow. You can read my reflection for Maundy Thursday here.


Faithful Cross above all other, one and only noble Tree

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit your peer may be!

Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,

Sweetest weight on you we see.

 

There were some questions last night about the necessity of the Cross. Why did anyone have to die or, in the case of Judas, to drown in despair, in order for God to redeem the world? Traditional Christian theology will offer a host of reasons in atonement theology and its siblings—the paying of a blood debt and such. But I reject those explanations categorically. These turn God, in one famous phrase, into the divine child abuser, not the all-loving, all-vulnerable one.

And yet the Cross is absolutely necessary. It is the only action large and deep enough both to shatter our comfortable understandings of ourselves, the world, and God; and also to reveal to us, in the very guts of our being, that we are never utterly alone.

Before and beyond all meaning, the Cross is the fracturing of meaning. And before and beyond all language about God, humanity, and salvation, the Cross is the silencing of language. It cannot be understood in the sense of being either comprehended (“comprised” or “encompassed”) or apprehended (“seized” or “grasped”). This is why all theories and theologies of the Cross are so obviously time-bound and limited, making of the Cross, as they do, a tool for human aims rather than a meaning-shattering vehicle of transformation into Christ. If we approach the Cross from the neck up, we will find it utterly senseless, because in a very real way it is utterly senseless.

I have only fragments, then, to offer you, and the invitation to walk with your whole person to the foot of the Cross, to reach out your hand and touch the body hanging there, to let the Cross shatter your own meanings so that God can reknit those pieces into a seamless garment, woven together into the mystical body of Christ.

The Cross is the still point around which the entire universe turns. It is both the beginning and the end of time, and it is planted firmly in the soil of the present moment. Christ is crucified and the world is made holy, sharing as it already does the fabric of the divine life. God does not endure annihilation and abandonment so that we don’t have to. God endures them to empty them of their meaning as ultimate, to reveal to us that there is, finally, no such thing as total abandonment and annihilation, that there is no part of us, however shameful, however painful that is not realized in love as God, no experience whatever that is not already made whole and holy in the divine life. In the words of Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “ Here there is no place that does not see you. / You must change your life.”[1]

The Cross is also, and eternally, the sharp point of annihilation, the infinite and unbridgeable distance between life and death. Through the Cross, God bridges and even collapses this infinity forever. Simone Weil, the great mystic of affliction, puts it this way:

God created through love and for love. God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms. Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion. […]

 

This tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of the silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. This is the Word of God. The whole creation is nothing but its vibration. […]

 

Those who persevere in love hear this note from the very lowest depths into which affliction has thrust them. From that moment they can no longer have any doubt.[2]

To put it another way, there is no part of us that is not already in union with God. On the Cross God splits himself from himself, tears himself in two and goes the fullest distance possible, to reveal to us the impossibility of separation from God. There is no part of us left out of the divine embrace, and there never has been, and there never will be.

The Cross is the union of love and abandonment, love through abandonment, abandonment to annihilating and unifying love.

The Cross exposes the emptiness of our works righteousness. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, no way to find or achieve union with Christ. God’s very life is poured out into ours at every single moment, and it always has been.

The Cross reveals to us that, despite the terrors that mar our lives, there is a place within us that evil cannot touch, where we have always dwelt eternally with God. Thomas Merton famously describes it thus:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely […] I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.[3]

The Cross, planted in our hearts, is that gate of heaven.

To put it another way, your heart is a cavern, wide and capacious. And at the heart of your heart, there is Jesus, nailed to the Cross, planted in the soil of your heart. If you move closer, if you press your face tenderly against his chest, he will open his heart to you, and within it, there you are, hanging on your own cross, forever joined to Christ in the profligate and loving abandonment of your own life. You are nailed to a cross, planted in the soil of Jesus’ heart, as he hangs on a cross, planted in the soil of your own heart.

You are in him as he is in you, as we are in God.

The Cross is salvation itself, the Tree of Life bearing fruit eternally: Jesus, pouring out his lifeblood for the life of you, for the life of me. Or, as Karl Rahner puts it, “the prodigal who squanders himself.” Cynthia Bourgeault points out that this prodigal self-emptying love is how God first created the world. It is also how God continues to create and recreate it again and again.[4] That pouring out of life in the midst of death and abandonment, is going on within you at every single moment of your life, more constant than your breathing, more constant than your heartbeat. In fact, it is your breathing; it is your heartbeat. It is the only thing keeping you alive.

So let us draw near to the Cross with reverence and solemnity, yes, but also with joy, also with love, even today the alleluia humming in our throat.

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

[2] Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, p. 72.

[3] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pp. 86-87.


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