Louise: But didn’t he finally do something religious when he died on the cross?
I’m sorry to disappoint you, Louise, but no again. Nothing he did was in any way recognizable as having religious significance. He died as a common criminal. The cross is a sign not of sacrifice but of execution — of a nasty bit of judicial murder that has no more intrinsic significance than the thousands of other such acts all through history. To be sure, people have turned the cross into a religious symbol; but since Christianity is not a “religion,” that sort of thing can only lead to confusion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions. And therefore if the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems — that it never did work and it never will — which is exactly what Hebrews 10:4 says: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So, if you want to theologize it into a sign, the best you can do is say that it’s the sign of the fulfillment of all that religion ever tried to do and couldn’t. The fact that the death of Jesus was non-religious says that loud and clear. And the fact that we put up crosses in the church, and make the sign of the cross on those who are baptized, says the same thing.
If that’s hard for you to grasp, try a little mental exercise with me. Suppose for a moment that the work of Jesus — the manifestation of the whole Mystery of God’s Incarnation — was taking place now rather than in the first century. Suppose that the Jesus in whom he became human had been born in an inner city to poor, Hispanic parents in 1959, that he began teaching when he was about thirty, and that after three years he ran afoul of the authorities and was condemned to death in 1992. Then ask yourself, “How would he be executed?” Most likely, of course, he’d die in the electric chair.
But then, jump ahead to the year 3092 and ask yourself another question: What would his followers in that distant future be doing with that manner of death in terms of ecclesiastical symbolism? It’s interesting, isn’t it? The chosen sign of the saving Mystery of his death would be not a cross but an electric chair. There would be replicas of the Old Rugged Electric Chair in all the churches. Solid brass ones, fourteen-karat gold-on-silver ones, fabulous diamond-encrusted ones on cathedral altars, tiny silver-chained ones to wear around your neck, and even molded chocolate ones for Easter candy. Not only that, but those who were baptized would probably have their heads shaved and be strapped into a chair for the rite.
But perhaps that’s enough to make my point about the cross. All I want to add here is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was just as non-religious. Nobody at all saw him actually do it. And only a handful of people witnessed the empty tomb — a witness that was written off by a good many others as a fraud. True enough, his followers claimed to have seen him risen; but he didn’t bother to stay around long enough to get any decent publicity. Instead, he disappeared after forty days and left a ragtag group of apostles and disciples to proclaim that this festival of irreligious mysteriousness was in fact the best news the human race had ever had. Weird; definitely weird. But not religious.
Third and finally, though, think of how the street-theater director’s cast of characters might try to explain to themselves how he finally turned their hodgepodge of actions into a play with a happy ending. They might, of course, attribute his success to specific bits of intervention on his part: a word here, the suggestion of a different bit of business there. And, true enough, each of those interventions would have been an instance of the director himself entering into the interchanges of the play. But if the cast were wise, they would look deeper than that. For one thing, they would see that since the key to the play’s success didn’t lie in them, it had in some sense to have been in the director all along. And for another thing, they would realize that since the success of the play was caused by the director, he had to have been in the play at every moment of its action, not just at the times they could recognize as his interventions.
In other words, they would have to invent something very like the notion of mystery to explain his constant, unobservable presence throughout the play; and they would have to invent something very like the notion of sacrament to explain how his occasional, specific actions were not just single instances of his acting to make the play a success but rather manifestations, in certain situations, of his real and effective presence to the play all along. Or, to put it another way, they would have to develop a directology (read “theology”) of his work that met two important criteria. On the one hand, it would have to affirm his intimate and immediate relationship to every moment of the play and not insist that his specific interventions were the whole cause of its happy ending. On the other hand, it would have to affirm his general relationship to the play in such a way that it didn’t deny the real presence and effectiveness of that relationship in his specific interventions.
Which brings us (luckily, because the analogy is just about to wear thin and break down) to what the church at its best has done in developing a theology (read “directology”) of the work of God incarnate in the world. Needless to say, the church’s theologizing has had its share of analogous temptations. Some theologians leaned in the direction of the “on the one hand” in the preceding paragraph. They treated the death and resurrection of God in Christ, for example, as if it were the only time and place in the history of creation where God had done his reconciling work. He acted once and for all, they said, in A.D. 29. Taken literally, of course, that got them into trouble. The “once” made it sound as if God had been absent from the play of history until he showed up after the intermission and did his thing in Jesus. And the “for all” gave them problems because it required a lot of legalistic shuffling to get the job he did in Jesus applied to the characters who died before the intermission, or to those who did their part in the play of history in places that Jesus (or his church) never got to before they died — or never got to at all.
This approach also led them to take a highly “transactional” view of what the church was up to. The church, for them, became the pipeline through which the work of God in Christ was funneled to the world. If you got yourself connected to the church, you got the happy ending; if you didn’t, you were out of luck. Or, to change the illustration, the church took the God in Christ who said he was the Light of the world and turned him into the Lighting Company of the world, complete with access fees (lots of good deeds) to be paid before you could tap into his power, and the threat of a cutoff in service if you didn’t keep up the monthly payments with righteous acts. But if Jesus really shines as the Light of the world the way the sun shines as the light of the earth, then nobody needs to do anything to get the light. The Mystery of Christ shines from one end of creation to the other: the whole shooting match is already lit up everywhere, free for nothing. The church doesn’t have to tear around telling people to get themselves wired into Jesus. It just has to bring them the hilariously Good News that if only they will trust Jesus and open their eyes, the darkness will be gone. And it will be gone because, except for the blindness of their unbelief, it was never there at all.
The whole, reconciling work of God incarnate in Jesus, you see, is already in everybody and everything by the universal presence of the Mystery of Christ. Therefore, the church is catholic not because it has the whole human race inside it (it never has had, and it probably never will) but because it is the sign (sacrament) to the world of the catholic reconciliation God has handed to every last human being from Adam to whomever. And do you see whai that means? It means that the Mystery of Christ is present not just in Christians or in good guys but present in sinners right in the midst of their sins. It means that the Mystery isn’t something that picks up its lily-white skirts and runs away when somebody does a no-no. The Mystery just hangs around everywhere: it’s in the murderer at the moment he puts the knife in the victim’s chest; it’s in the victim as the knife punctures her heart — and it’s in the abuser and the abused, the torturer and the tortured, the violator and the violated. You don’t earn its presence by being a good egg, and you can’t lose it by being a bad one.
Which is why, I suppose, when God chose to sacramentalize the presence of that Mystery in Jesus between 4 B.C. and A.D. 29, he made sure it got manifested in a very questionable egg indeed. In some sense, to be sure, Christians are committed to take seriously the notion that Jesus was “without sin.” But you have to be very careful not to turn him into a Little Lord Fauntleroy in velvet pants. Because whatever the theological significance of his “sinless-ness” may be, it’s a cinch that the notion would have been news to most of the people who ran into him during his career. As a matter of fact, a lot of them just lumped him together with the whores and tax sharks he habitually hung around with and let it go at that. Even more alarmingly, he never even tried to convince them otherwise — being content, it would seem, to be made “like his brothers and sisters in every respect,” even to the point of being a rotten egg, or, in Paul’s more elegant but even more astounding phrase, of being “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The Mystery of Christ manifested in Jesus, therefore, is the Mystery of the irrevocable marriage of God to creation — of a completely restored relationship “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It is not some divine Romance with an idealized beloved; it’s the embracing of all the gorgeousness and grisliness of the world because that’s all the world God wants and all he’s got — because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), and because, as the omnipotent, champion turkey-caller of all time, he doesn’t quit till he gets every turkey in the world: Robert, Louise, Otto, Enid, Alice, and Frank; Alexander the Terrible, Sam the Serial Killer, and Geoffrey the Office Letch; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome the Professional Grouch-and even St. George the Dragon-slayer, just in case he had the dumb luck actually to exist We are all the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb who is the Light of a world made new in his death and resurrection.
I promised you that at the end of this long string I would give you something about the carnality of faith to the enjoyment of the Mystery of God’s Incarnation, of your restored relationship in the Marriage of God to creation. Here it is; read it slowly, because it will be over in just two short sentences:
You don’t have to work for the relationship because you’ve got it already. Just trust Jesus and open your eyes.
The Mystery of Christ, pgs. 62-67