We proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
-1 Cor. 1:23-24
Modern cinematic technology is pretty amazing. The sense of being present in the midst of the story is so powerful that the viewing public pays billions of dollars each year for the experience. Why are superhero movies like Iron Man or Batman so popular? Because, in experiencing the events in the lives of powerful and clever characters like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, we feel powerful and clever, too.
But not all movies do this. Consider Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It is a hard film to watch. We see the suffering of Christ in graphic detail. It is one thing to read in the Gospel of John, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged.” It is something else to watch a solder brutally and mercilessly beat Jesus with a scourge, to see the gashes being cut into his back, his side, his legs and his face. We see the blood flying and pouring off his body, we see the skin being ripped off, we see and hear Jesus twisting and screaming in pain. This is a whole different kind of cinematic experience. You don’t feel powerful or clever while you watch; you feel nauseated and betrayed. And so, many people hated The Passion of the Christ because it’s realistic depiction of crucifixion was too violent, too unpleasant, too ugly. Whatever its merits as a film, it certainly depicts the suffering entailed in the crucifixion.
St. Paul, then, is right to say that Christ crucified is “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” How could this suffering man be the God of the Jews or the Wisdom of the Greeks? Today the situation is almost worse. To the modern man, Christ crucified is repulsive and offensive: I want to look away, I don’t want to deal with this. That Christ suffered 2000 years ago is fine, but today in the 21st century, such suffering offends our aesthetic sense; and the notion that we should imitate Christ crucified is positively an assault on our liberty and our right to the pursuit of happiness. How dare Jesus mar my tidy, orderly life with the messiness of crucifixion! The health and wealth gospel looks like a better way to go. So what are we doing today exalting the cross? Are we masochists? Who wants to uphold the Mel Gibson image of Jesus? Well, St. Paul, for one.
In this section of 1st Corinthians, St. Paul is worried that the Corinthians are aligning themselves with particular human preachers in different factions, according to the attractiveness of their message or who it was that baptized them. But for Paul, these are not important. He says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” Whenever we turn away from the cross and instead seek signs, or wisdom, or power, or smooth words, we empty the cross --and thus our faith-- of its meaning, because without the cross there is no resurrection. When we feel powerful or wise, we know that we have fallen short of our target, for “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” In other words, we exalt the cross because it is only through the cross that we can participate in the divine power and wisdom that is necessary for our happiness and salvation.
Without the cross we are doomed to grasp impotently and foolishly at the things of this world, things that will only bring us misery. Our consumerist culture besieges us on every side, tempting and beguiling us with the idea that we can fill our emptiness with goods and services. It lies to us, telling us that, there’s just one more thing; that if we buy just one more product, then we will be content and satisfied. If only the food were better, if only my health were better, if only I had a few dollars more, if only this injustice in my life were corrected, then happiness would be mine!
In Philippians, Paul tells us that, “though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Mammon can never fill our emptiness, but, paradoxically, detachment can. We can only truly be filled when we let go of everything else. Yes, absolutely everything else, except God himself. The wisdom of the cross, the power of the cross, is that God’s love is always present to us, will always triumph over evil, and is the only way to be happy. Do you believe this?
Today we exalt the cross, we raise it up, as the sign that we can conquer the Evil one, by the grace of God. Today, we freely chose to begin the monastic fast. Not as some archaic masochistic ritual, but as a free response in love to the love of Christ crucified. As for an athlete that has won the race, we exalt, we lift up the cross of Christ on our shoulders as a celebration of his victory over sin. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” O Christ crucified, may we empty ourselves in imitation of you, who are, for those who are the called, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Amen.