One of the best-selling books in England at present is a novel by Tony Parson, Man and Boy. In it, Parson reflects upon some of the strengths and weaknesses of today’s young adults, Generation X.
His hero is a young man who has just celebrated his 30th birthday. Like so many people of his generation, he has a lot of admirable qualities: He’s sincere, genuine, likeable, humble enough, generally honest, and essentially moral. He wants all the right things, but, all this good-will notwithstanding, his life takes a painful twist. Happily-enough married and the father of a young son whom he much loves, our bungling hero unthinkingly sleeps with one of his co-workers on the night of his 30th birthday. The action itself, he feels, is meaningless. He doesn’t love the woman, nor she him. For him, it’s an episodic act, pure and simple, one night of irrationality.
His wife, though, takes a different view. She finds out and, for her, it is anything but meaningless. Having been betrayed before by significant men in her life, her father included, she is unwilling to accept and forgive this. She moves out and eventually divorces our hero who is left wondering why an act of such, seeming, little significance has so great a consequence. Slowly, painfully, he begins to see that actions have far-reaching consequences, whether we intend that or not. What he learns too through this bitter lesson is that love costs something, demands hard choices, and asks us to sweat blood at times. It cannot be had without paying a price.
There’s a real price to be paid for love. The cross tells us this. The language we use to speak about the cross might sometimes not give that impression. We speak of Jesus’ suffering on the cross “as paying a debt”, “as washing us clean with blood”, “as making expiation for sin” and “as breaking the power of satan.” These expressions, metaphors essentially, might give the impression that Jesus suffers on the cross as part of some divinely-scripted plan and that the purpose of his sufferings is to pay off a debt within the divine realm. What has all of this got to do with us?
What Jesus’ suffered on the cross and what he suffered just prior in the Garden of Gethsemane, is not something that is too much in the realm of divine mystery to be understood. It’s something we are asked to imitate. What Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals, among other things, is that real love costs and costs dearly. If we want sustained, faithful, and life-giving love in our lives, the kind of pain that Jesus suffered on the cross is, at a point, its price-tag.
“Love is a harsh thing,” Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, costing “not less than everything,” T.S. Eliot adds. That’s one of the messages of the cross. Simply put, the cross says: “If you want real love beyond romantic daydreams, if you want to keep any commitment you have ever made in marriage, parenting, friendship, or religious vocation, you can do so only if you are willing to sweat blood and die to yourself at times. There is no other route. Love costs. What you see when you look at the cross of Jesus is what committed love asks of us.”
This is not something our culture is keen to hear. Today we have many strengths, but sweating blood and dying to self in order to remain faithful within our commitments is not something at which we are very good. We find it very difficult to make choices and then to do the hard things that need to be done in order to stick with those choices. Our problem is not ill-will or ill-intention. Like Parson’s bungling hero, we are sincere, likeable, and moral. We want the right things, but every choice is a renunciation and we would love to have what we have without excluding some other things.
We want to be saints, but we don’t want to miss out on any sensation that sinners experience. We want fidelity in our marriages, but we want to flirt with every attractive person who comes round; we want to be good parents, but we don’t want to make the sacrifice this demands, especially in terms of our careers; we want deep roots, but we don’t want to forego the intoxication that comes with new stimulus; we want stable friendship, but we don’t want duties or obligations that tie us down. In short, we want love, but not at the cost of “obedience unto death.”
And yet that is the message of the cross. Love costs, costs everything. To love beyond romantic daydreams means to “sweat blood” and “to be obedient unto death”. The cross invites us to look at the choices we made in love, see how they narrow our options, and, in that pain, say: “Not my will, but yours, be done.”