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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

eric.m.johnston

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