The cross of Christ is like a carefully-cut diamond. Every time you turn it in the light you get a different sparkle. It means so many things and its depths can never be fully fathomed, always more meaning spills over. We can never get our minds around it, but, and we sense this, ultimately the cross is the deepest word that can ever be spoken about love. No wonder it is perhaps the most universally-cherished symbol on earth.
How can one begin to unravel the multifarious levels of meaning carried by a cross?
The best place to start is with God. What the cross tells us, more clearly than any other revelation, is that God is absolutely and utterly non-violent and that God’s vulnerability, which the cross invites us into, is a power for community with God and with each other. What’s being said here? How does the cross reveal God as non-violent?
We are forever connecting God to coercion, threat, guilt, reckoning, and to the idea that a power should somehow rise up and crush by force all that’s evil. That concept is the main reason why so many of us either fear God, hate God, try to avoid God, or are disappointed in God (“Why doesn’t God do something about the world?”.) But what scripture reveals about God, and this is seen full-bloom on the cross, is that God is neither coercion, threat, guilt, nor the great avenger of evil and sin.
Rather God is love, light, truth, and beauty; a gentle, though persistent, invitation, that’s never a threat. God is like a mother, gently trying to coax another step out of a young child learning to walk (“Come on, try, just another step!”). God exists as an infinite patience that endures all things, not as a great avenger, Rambo and John Wayne, who kills all the bad guys when he has finally had enough. The cross of Christ reveals that God works far differently than do our movies and our imaginations. God never overpowers anyone.
Radically, of course, God could. God has all the power. However God’s power to create love and community, paradoxically, works precisely by refusing to ever overpower. It works instead through vulnerability, through something the Gospels call EXOUSIA. What is this?
The Gospels tell us that when people witnessed Jesus’ life and ministry they saw something that sharply differentiated him from others. “He spoke with great power, unlike the scribes and pharisees.” However they use a curious word to name that power. They never say that Jesus spoke with great ENERGIA (“Wow, is he energetic!”) or DYNAMIS (“What dynamism!”). Instead they use the (Greek) word, EXOUSIA, a word with no English equivalent, but whose meaning can be conveyed in an image:
If you would put the strongest man in the world into a room with a new-born baby which of these two would be more powerful? Obviously at one level, the man is more powerful, he could kill the baby if he wanted. But, the baby possesses a different kind of power, a far deeper one, one that can move things muscles can’t. A baby has EXOUSIA, its vulnerability is a great power. It doesn’t need to out-muscle anyone. A baby invites, beckons, and all that’s moral and deep in the conscience simply cannot walk away. It’s no accident that God chose to be incarnated into this world as baby.
It’s no accident either that Jesus died as he did on Good Friday. The cross reveals the power of God in this world, a power that is never the power of a muscle, a speed, a brilliance, a physical attractiveness, or a grace which simply leaves you no other choice but to acknowledge its superiority and bend your knee in obeisance. The world’s power works this way, movies end that way. God’s power is the power of EXOUSIA, a baby that lies helpless, muted, patient, beckoning for someone to take care of it. It’s this power that lies at the deepest base of things and will in the end, gently, have the final say. It’s also the only power upon which love and community can be created because it, and it alone, ultimately softens rather than breaks the heart.
And it’s a power that invites us in. It’s good to know this so that we don’t give into bitterness and grow vicious ourselves when we are slighted and can’t defend ourselves, when our dreams get crushed and there’s nothing we can do about it, when we so desperately want to do something that stands out but haven’t the talent to do so, or when we find ourselves a minority of one before a jeering crowd.
The cross of Christ tells us that, at those moments of painful helplessness, when we can’t impress or overpower anyone, we are acting in a divine way, non-violently, and in that vulnerability lies the secret to our coming to love and community.