Thinking about the Cross

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) was a French monk and then Archbishop of Canterbury, and a very important theologian. His arguments are famously slippery from a purely rational perspective. But he is really writing spiritual exercises, more like meditations than like philosophical arguments.

One of his most famous books, Cur Deus Homo, or “why God became man,” discusses the Cross. It can help us think about Holy Week.

On a rational level, Cur Deus Homo is famously slippery. The argument is, basically, that sin is an infinite offense, which requires an infinite repayment. Man needs to make the repayment, but only God can do it. Therefore God must become man and die.

Most people, even theologians, are turned off by many elements of this argument. God is not a miser, demanding repayment. Nor does he will death as a fitting repayment of sin. Nonetheless, we can learn much from this text by reading it spiritually.


Anselm’s first insight is the horror of sin. To understand this insight, though, we have to turn it around, from “offense against God” to overwhelming sadness for our stupidity.

He guides us through a meditation on the sin of Adam and Eve. They had everything. More than everything, they had God, who is so overwhelmingly, superabundantly good that he is worth losing everything for. If God is the Creator of all good things, then not only can he give us all those things, but, far deeper, he is better than all those things, infinitely better.

Anselm asks us to consider, then, just how dramatically irrational sin is. The point is not the rule we are breaking, nor the “anger” we arouse in God. The point is that sin, by definition, means choosing a radically inferior thing even when it means losing everything. We can’t hurt God. Sin does not hurt God. But it hurts us, because it is the choice not to have God. Dramatic stupidity, radical tragedy.


This is important, for example, if we follow St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s famous meditations on the Stations of the Cross (which many parishes use on Fridays during Lent). “My Jesus, I am sorry for having offended you,” he has us pray. Well now, that’s a little imprecise – blame it on the translation, or maybe the change in cultural context. Sin doesn’t “offend” Jesus. Jesus isn’t touchy or over-sensitive! To the contrary, Jesus was so willing to put up with our sin that he even died on the Cross.

But St. Alphonsus’s point is that sin is a rejection of Jesus. As if he, the God of all goodness, and the man of all sweetness, stands before us, offers us everything, and we say, “nah.” The problem with sin is not that Jesus takes offense. The problem is that, like Esau in the Book of Genesis, we are “trading our birthright for a pot of lentils.” Jesus is so very good, and we choose things that are so much less good.

This goes for our relationships, too. The deeper problem is not the rules we break. It’s that, for example, when we are snippy with someone, we are willing to lose the massive good of that relationship so that we can hold onto . . . what? Our high opinion of ourselves? Our “right” to get annoyed? This is a stupid trade. Sin is always about giving up what is really wonderful in exchange for something that just isn’t worth it.


This is the situation of fallen man: our scale of values is upside down. We have set our hearts on really worthless things when we could have God himself.

The death of Christ is, first, a witness to the re-scaling of values. It is not that God wants us to die – he raises Jesus from the dead! It is not that he wants us to suffer: he offers us heaven. But he does want us to reconsider.

The Cross is key because it shows what it means to re-scale our values. Now that we are so caught up in sin – however original sin technically works, it’s just a fact that we very frequently choose snippiness over charity, our own way over seeking God – we need to rethink.

Christ on the Cross has everything, because he has the Father, and because he loves his own “to the end.” Why are we unwilling to follow?

But even more powerfully, Christ who is God pours out from the Cross his grace, his sacraments, his Holy Spirit, so that we can be transformed into his likeness. He offers us help, so that we can choose the way of God and the way of love, and scoff at the cost.


What crosses are you called to carry? Why don’t you carry them?

Deliver Us From Evil

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 14 in our series on the Our Father.

The last petition of the Our Father is, in a sense, the most practical. “Hallowed be thy Name,” at the beginning, is so lofty as to be hard to pin down. It’s not immediately clear what it means, or what we should do. But “deliver us from evil” nicely expresses how we experience the Christian life most of the time: “Lord, please, just help me keep out of trouble!”

We experience this, first of all, on the physical level. It seems like nothing makes people pray like danger. Friends of ours just had a baby in the hospital, for what, thank God, turned out not to be leukemia. Everyone was praying then!

We can learn a couple lessons from this. First, we learn that there really are, at least on some levels, objective goods and bads. There is such a thing as “evil,” at least in the sense of Really Bad. (Latin and Greek, in fact—and also German, French, and a lot of languages—don’t make a distinction between “evil” and “bad.” It might be helpful to pray sometimes, “deliver me from bad things!”) Leukemia is bad.

Second, good does sometimes come from bad. It’s good to be reminded to be thankful for our children, good to pray, good to come together. But leukemia is still just plain bad.

Third, we believe that God is provident, that he can help us. Praying “deliver me from bad things” at least gives us a sense that God does something.

But finally, “bad” can never be the last word. Once cured from sickness (or poverty, or trouble at work, or whatever) we still have a life to live. We are liberated, or “delivered” from evil, but still left to seek the good. Despite our constant experience of struggling to get free from bad, we still need to live life and seek for happiness.


Now, all of this repeats itself on the moral level. Indeed, when we begin to ask what comes next, once we are free from physical evils, the question next arises how we should live. For many of us, most of the time, Christianity feels like a struggle to stay out of moral evils, a struggle with sin.

Here again, the struggle reminds us that there is such a thing as good and bad. To be struggling against our own sin means we are already decent people – but we recognize that we still have a long way to go. We are still snippy, self-righteous, unfair to the people around us. It is good to struggle against evil in our moral life. It is part of the path of love.

It is even better to pray to God to deliver us. The Our Father does not tell us to pray, “I’ll try harder next time.” It teaches us to ask our Father to deliver us. It encourages us to transform our struggle to be a better person into a deeper reliance on God, a deeper belief that he can actually help. Just as God can heal our physical ills, his grace also heals our spiritual and moral sickness.


And the Our Father teaches us to think of this in terms of liberation. Christ sets us free. Not free to be evil, but free to be good. Just as sickness prevents us from living our life, so too does sin. To pray “free us,” deliver us from evil, is to learn to see that sin is not a matter of breaking arbitrary laws, but of being caught up in kinds of un-freedom, inability to live a full life of love.

At the end of the Our Father, this is, in some sense, our ordinary experience of the Christian life: the struggle against bad stuff, physical and spiritual, the gradual discovery that sin is slavery, and the even deeper discovery that God is powerful to set us free and deliver us.


But finally, too, we learn to see that there is more to life than deliverance from evil. Though we spend much of our life fighting little problems, the Our Father calls us to lift our eyes higher. We pray not just to do better this time, but to be healed from temptation; to learn to forgive; and to see God not only as our deliverer from evil, but as our constant nourishment.

And then to lift up our eyes to willing as he wills, working for his kingdom, and hallowing the name of Our Father. This is true liberation, the true meaning of escape from sin.


Do you struggle as much as you should against little evils? Or do you get caught in the battle against little evils? What would true Christian freedom look like?

Those Who Trespass Against Us

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 12 in our series on the Our Father.

As we think about the Our Father as a model of our spiritual life, let’s take one more week, this Lent, on forgiveness. This is the one part of the prayer, after all, that Jesus himself underlines: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). It almost sounds like our entire salvation hinges on this.

An interesting aspect of this line is that Jesus does not deny, and does not ask us to deny, that there are such people as “those who trespass against us” – in fact, they are common enough to make up our whole way of salvation.

Now, there is a healthy practice of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions. Often when it seems like someone has trespassed against us, it’s all just a big misunderstanding. Often we are the bigger trespassers: we are being too ornery, or too quick to judge other people’s intentions, etc. Sometimes what we take for a trespass was an innocent mistake, sometimes they were actually trying to help us, and we are too prideful and stubborn to appreciate it. It’s good and valuable for us to make a habit of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions.

But that is not what Jesus tells us to do here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean not noticing. It doesn’t mean pretending that nothing happened. It doesn’t mean pretending there is no one who “trespasses against us.” Forgiveness is more radical than that, because it means loving even when people do trespass against us.


This comes to the heart of our Lent. Jesus did not die for the “innocent misunderstandings” of the world. He died for our sins. He loves us, and forgives us, even when what we do is radically wrong.

Or rather, he recognizes that sin and misunderstanding are not so far distant. In Luke’s Gospel, he says from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). On one side, his forgiveness recognizes that if they really knew, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

On the other hand, precisely in Luke’s gospel, it immediately goes on to the good thief: “One of the malefactors who were hanged railed on him, saying, ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other answering rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, seeing that you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Lk 23:39-41). The good thief is saved by the recognition that he has sinned, not by pleading it was all an innocent mistake.


Perhaps we can put it this way. Sin is a sad predicament. The sinner is not someone we should hate for his evil. He is someone we should pity for his foolishness.

The good thief is saved by acknowledging the truth. By acknowledging, on the one hand, that sin has gotten him nothing, that the ultimate wages of sin is death. And by acknowledging, on the other hand, that only Jesus can get him out of this mess.

The bad thief is lost because he insists on the way of selfishness. That selfishness is itself his condemnation. It’s not that Jesus decides whether he “deserves” to be “punished.” It’s that being a bad person is itself a horrible thing. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. The world condemns itself, by choosing hate over love. That choice is hell.


Sin is all around us. People do trespass against us. They do many wrong things. They choose not to love. They crucified the Lord of glory.

If we are spiritually alert, we realize that sin is within us, too. How petty, that when people trespass against us, we look for ways to fight back. What do we think that is going to get us? What good does it do us to hate people for their sin? It hurts them more than it hurts us.

Forgiveness is the recognition that sin hurts the sinner. Forgiveness is salvific because it helps us to detest sin as we should, to turn from the way of self to the way of love. And forgiveness is the recognition that we too need forgiveness, and turn to a Lord who always gives us a chance to repent, even when we are both hanging on the Cross.


What are some examples where your failure to forgive is truly foolish?