When I was in graduate school, one of my evangelical Protestant friends once said to me, “Ben, do you know why we have a bare cross?”
He pointed to a cross without a corpus on the wall of the divinity library. “Because Jesus is risen!”
This, of course, was a little friendly Catholic baiting, yet he meant to give me a quick lesson in theology. Jesus is risen. Why dwell on the Crucifixion? The triumph of Christianity is in the Resurrection.
Only later did I think of the proper reply. “Our danger as Christians,” I should have said, “lies not in forgetting the Resurrection. If we forget the Resurrection, we simply cease to be Christians. Our danger comes from forgetting the Crucifixion, from dwelling only on the happy result, and not on the horrifying means of achieving it.”
My friend did have hold of a half-truth — even more than half. Good Friday without Easter Sunday would be a morbid, fruitless defeat. If there had been a crucifixion without a resurrection, there would have been no Christianity at all. But to restore his partial truth to its proper whole, the Resurrection without the Crucifixion removes the very heart of the sacrifice by which death itself and our sin were both destroyed.
Looking back, I can understand more clearly my Protestant friend's desire to empty the cross.
Surely he was filled with zeal at the great miracle of the Resurrection. But I suspect — God forgive me if I am wrong — that he enjoyed a secret sigh of relief over not having to look at Christ crucified. Christ has suffered, Christ has died and Christ has risen. If Christ took care of the first two, and now the Christian may enjoy the fruits of the last, we are relieved of a great burden. Such were the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo — salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
My friend, true to his heritage, held that the cross should be bare because it had all been done solo Christo. It was all Easter and no Lent or Good Friday. Could it really be that easy?
But another part of the Reformation battle cry was sola scriptura, and Scripture seemed to say otherwise.
I remember the sinking feeling I had the first time it really hit me hard that there was more to Christianity than the good news of the Resurrection. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”, for “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
There it was, plain as day, painful but undeniable.
With this more thorough reading of the Gospels, my heart sunk like that of the rich man who was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor.
I realized deep within me, where I was squirming and wriggling to finesse these passages, that there was no escape. Christ was clearly demanding that we, his followers, not just observe him, give mental assent to his teachings and claim all the benefits of the cross. We have to actually follow him, and that means the whole way — up the via dolorosa, up and onto the cross. He calls us to share his suffering, humiliation and death so that we might share in the Resurrection.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, I sighed with resignation (but not relief), was certainly good — but not exactly cheerful — news.
In St. Paul's words: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” These words were not merely metaphorical. A little later on, the Apostle makes clear that we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” My friend had seized the comfort of the Resurrection without the agony of the Cross. But the comfort, St. Paul elsewhere proclaims, comes through sharing in the agony. “For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort, too.”
So why, we might ask, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ even called the Gospel — the “Good News”? As I am sure my friend would admit, even with Christ's resurrection, we Christians still suffer and we still die. Neither Christ's death nor his resurrection has removed these two evils.
Rather than making evil disappear all in a flash of glory, Christ humbly submitted to these evils so that, by divine grace, good could be brought out of evil.
If merely affirming the Resurrection were sufficient for our salvation, then our suffering and death would be pointless evils afflicting us. But if Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and we are to take up our cross and follow him, then through him, our suffering and our death can be redeemed. That is the Good News. It is hard news, yes — but profoundly good nonetheless.
Our suffering — our great and little pains, our anxiety, our fear, our sickness, our deadening fatigue — have now been lifted up out of the black pool of meaninglessness; they have been lifted up and united with the suffering Christ.
Even more glorious than the redemption of our suffering and death is that, by union with Christ's suffering and death, our suffering itself becomes redemptive. By uniting ourselves with Christ, by taking up our cross, we “bear fruit by configuration to the Savior's redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” Now, my friend may not appreciate the source of this quote, section 1521 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But let's hear it from St. Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” he told the Colossians, “and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church …” (Colossians 1:24).
Hard as it is, I'll keep the crucifix. And as we move from Lent toward Easter, I'll not forget either the good in Good Friday or the glory of the Resurrection on Easter morning.
Ben Wiker teaches classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.