Advent Reflection 3: Born for the Cross

‘That Cross was deep embedded in the very structure of Christ’s Person, because nowadays you cannot separate His Person from His vocation, from the work lie came to do, and the words He came to speak. The Cross was not simply a fate awaiting Christ in the future; it pervaded subliminally His holy Person. He was born for the Cross. It was His genius, His destiny. It was quite inevitable that, in a world like this, One holy as Jesus was holy should come to the Cross. The parable [of the prodigal Son] was spoken by One in whom the Cross and all it stands for were latent in His idea of God; and it became patent, came to the surface, became actual, and practical, and powerful in the stress of man’s crisis and the fullness of God’s time. That is an important phrase. Christ Himself came in a fullness of time. The Cross which consummated and crowned Christ came in its fullness of time. The time was not full during Christ’s life for preaching an atonement that life could never make’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 107-8.

The Scapegoat and the Trinity

While I don’t concur with every idea in this Good Friday sermon by Hans Urs von Balthasar (for example the notion that ‘that there is room in [the Triune life] for all the alienation and sin of the world’; some things simply just need to be destroyed and are beyond redemption or reconciliation!) I was greatly encouraged reading this sermon today and thought it worthwhile reproducing here that others may also be encouraged.

‘Nearly two thousand years ago a trial took place that resulted in the death of the condemned man. Why is it that, even today, it will not allow mankind to forget about it? Have there not been countless other show trials down the years, particularly in our own time, and should the crying injustice of these trials not stir us up and preoccupy us just as much as that ancient trial at the Passover in Jerusalem? To judge by the constant and even increasing flood of books and discussions about Jesus, however, all the horrors of the extermination camps and the Gulag Archipelago matter less to mankind than the sentencing of this one innocent man whom, according to the Bible, God himself championed and vindicated—as is evident from his Resurrection from the dead.

The question is: Was he the one, great and final scapegoat for mankind? Did mankind load him with all its guilt, and did he, the Lamb of God, carry this guilt away? This is the thesis of a modern ethnologist, René Girard, whose books have attracted much attention in America, France and recently in Germany. According to this view, all human civilization, right from the outset, is constructed on the principle of the scapegoat. That is, men have cunningly invented a way of overcoming their reciprocal aggression and arriving at an at least temporary peace: thus they concentrate this aggression on an almost randomly chosen scapegoat and appoint this scapegoat as the sacrificial victim, in order to pacify an allegedly angry god. According to Girard, however, this divine anger is nothing other than men’s reciprocal rage. This mechanism always needs to be set in motion again after a period of relative peace if world history is to proceed in any half-tolerable way; in this context it reached its absolute peak in the general rejection of Jesus by the gentiles, the Jews and the Christians too: Jesus really did take over and carry away the sins of all that were loaded onto him, in such a way that anyone who believes this can live in peace with his brother from now on.

Girard’s ideas are interesting; they bring the trial of Jesus to life in a new way. But we can still ask why this particular murder, after so many others, should be the conclusive event of world history, the advent of the end time? Men have cast their guilt onto many innocent scapegoats; why did this particular bearer of sins bring about a change in the world as a whole?

For the believer the answer is easy: the crucial thing is not that this is an instance of our wanting to rid ourselves of guilt. Naturally, no one wants to admit guilt. Pilate washes his hands and declares himself guiltless; the Jews hide behind their law, which requires them to condemn a blasphemer; they act in a pious and God-fearing way. Judas himself has remorse for his deed; he brings the blood money back and, when no one will take it from him, throws it at the high priests. No one is prepared to accept responsibility. But precisely by attempting to extricate themselves, they are convinced by God that they are guilty of the death of this innocent man. Ultimately it is not what men do that is the determining factor.

The crucial thing is that there is Someone who is both ready and able to take their guilt upon himself. None of the other scapegoats was able to do this. According to the New Testament understanding, the Son of God became man in order to take this guilt upon himself. He lived with a view to the “hour” that awaited him at the end of his earthly existence, with a view to the terrible baptism with which he would have to be baptized, as he says. This “hour” would see him chained and brought to trial not merely outwardly; it would not only tear his body to pieces with scourges and nail it to the wood but also penetrate into his very soul, his spirit, his most intimate relationship with God, his Father. It would fill everything with desolation and the mortal fear of having been forsaken—as it were, with a totally alien, hostile and deadly poisonous substance that would block his every access to the source from which he lived.

It is in the horror of this darkness, of this emptiness and alienation from God, that the words on the Mount of Olives are spoken: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. ” The cup of which he here speaks is well known in the Old Testament: it is the cup full of God’s anger and wrath, which sinners must drink to the dregs; often it is threatened or forced upon unfaithful Jerusalem or enemy peoples like Babylon. The cry from the Cross is uttered out of the same horror of spiritual blackness, the cry asking why God has forsaken this tortured man. The man who cries out knows only that he is forsaken; in this darkness he no longer knows why. He is not permitted to know why, for the idea that the darkness he is undergoing might be on behalf of others would constitute a certain comfort; it would give him a ray of light. No such comfort can be granted him now, for the issue, in absolute seriousness, is that of purifying the relationship between God and the guilty world.

The man who endures this night is the Innocent One. No one else could effectively undergo it on behalf of others. What ordinary or extraordinary man would even have enough room in himself to accommodate the world’s guilt? Only someone who is a partner of the eternal Father, distinct from him and yet divine, that is, the Son who, man that he is, is also God, can have such capacity within him.

Here we are faced with a bottomless mystery, for in fact there is an immense difference between the generating womb in God the Father and the generated fruit, the Son, although both are one God in the Holy Spirit. Nowadays many theologians say, quite rightly, that it is precisely at the Cross that this difference becomes clearly manifest: at this precise point the mystery of the divine Trinity is fully proclaimed. The distance is so great—for in God everything is infinite—that there is room in it for all the alienation and sin of the world; the Son can draw all this into his relationship with the Father without any danger of it harming or altering the mutual eternal love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Sin is burnt up, as it were, in the fire of this love, for God, as Scripture says, is a consuming fire that will not tolerate anything impure but must burn it away.

Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it. As we have already said, there is nothing familiar about it to him: it is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering “hell”, for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.

Nor can we say that God the Father “punishes” his suffering Son in our place. It is not a question of punishment, for the work accomplished here between Father and Son with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit is utter love, the purest love possible; so, too, it is a work of the purest spontaneity, from the Son’s side as from the side of Father and Spirit. God’s love is so rich that it can also assume this form of darkness, out of love for our dark world.

What, then, can we do? “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It was as if the cosmos sensed that something decisive was going on here, as if it were participating in the darkness invading the soul of Christ. For our part, we do not need to experience this darkening, for we are already estranged and dark enough. It would suffice if we held onto our faith in a world that has become dark all around us; it would be enough for us to be convinced that all inner light, all inner joy and security, all trust in life owes its existence to the darkness of Golgotha and never to forget to give God thanks for it.

At the very periphery of this thanksgiving to God, it is legitimate to ask that, if God permits it, we may help the Lord to bear a tiny particle of the suffering of the Cross, of his inner anxiety and darkness, if it will contribute to reconciling the world with God. Jesus himself says that it is possible to help him bear it when he challenges us to take up our cross daily. Paul says the same in affirming that he suffers that portion of the Cross that Christ has reserved for him and for other Christians. When life is hard and apparently hopeless, we can be confident that this darkness of ours can be taken up into the great darkness of redemption through which the light of Easter dawns. And when what is required of us seems too burdensome, when the pains become unbearable and the fate we are asked to accept seems simply meaningless—then we have come very close to the man nailed on the Cross at the Place of the Skull, for he has already undergone this on our behalf and, moreover, in unimaginable intensity. When surrounded by apparent meaninglessness, therefore, we cannot ask to be given a calming sense of meaning; all we can do is wait and endure, quite still, like the Crucified, not seeing anything, facing the dark abyss of death. Beyond this abyss there waits for us something that, at present, we cannot see (nor can we even manage to regard it as true), namely, a further abyss of light in which all the world’s pain is treasured and cherished in the ever-open heart of God. Then we shall be allowed, like the Apostle Thomas, to put our hand into this gaping wound; feeling it, we shall realize in a very bodily way that God’s love transcends all human senses, and with the disciple we shall pray: “My Lord and my God.”‘

Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year (trans. Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 82-6.

Observing the Crucified

‘If the cross, prior to Paul, was the question to be answered by the resurrection, with Paul the observation was reversed: the risen Christ was identifiable with Jesus of Nazareth only as the crucified’. – Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 102.


J.R.R. Tolkien first coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ to refer to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which result in the protagonist‘s well-being. He formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term appears to have had a thematic meaning that went beyond its implied meaning in terms of form. In his definition as outlined in his 1947 essay On Fairy-Stories, eucatastrophe is a fundamental part of his conception of mythopoeia. Though Tolkien’s interest is in myth, it is also connected to the gospels; Tolkien calls the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of “human history” and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.’ From here.

If by ‘Incarnation’ we mean the whole action of the Incarnate Son, then I agree. Forsyth speaks of grace as ‘Nature’s destiny.’ For while ‘nature cannot of itself culminate in grace, at least it was not put there without regard to grace. Grace is Nature’s destiny’ Apart from grace, nature becomes abstruse, unreal and inhuman. Apart from nature, the physical stuff of the world too dust-bound to satisfy metaphysical enquiry, grace tends to despair and absurdity. ‘Nature, if not the mother, is the matrix of Grace.’ But that grace is bloodied, despised and rejected, crushed for the iniquities of, and laden with punishment for, those who hide their faces from it. Grace is never an abstract thing. Nor is it cheap.

Grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying on a ‘bitter tree,’ not only for his friends but also for those who would wish him and his Father dead. Grace is a person redeeming in holy love. Grace is God in his eucatastrophic action in the face of Nature’s catastrophe. Grace is God taking seriously the scandalous nature of sin’s offence, and himself going down into the experience of nothingness and dread, into hell, into death, into the furnace of his own wrath, into the radical depths of its wound, in order to save. There can be no higher gift. Moreover, such grace alone satisfies the human (and divine) conscience, which requires not merely an explanation of the Cross, but its revelation. This grace alone, the grace of the initiating Father, carries humanity home and brings peace to the human spirit.

The love of God

What ought we say about the love of God? In the cross, God’s love for himself, his name and his authority, and his love for his creatures, is taken up and met in one action wherein God exhibits the very nature of his being as unconditional Holy Love. That’s why not only is the doctrine of the Trinity necessary to make sense of the atonement, but the atonement is necessary to reveal the Trinitarian fellowship of God. The Holy Love that defines the perichoretic life of the Triune God has, by the grace of the Father in the action of the incarnate Son and by the mission of the Spirit, overflowed freely towards those outside of God’s community that creatures may enter into the Holy Love communion that the Triune God has ever known and spoke creation into being for participation in.

In Jesus Christ, God has shown not only only that he does not want to be God without us, but that he does not want us to be without him. And in the action of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God is present and active among us to hear and answer our prayers, to sustain us in all the happenings of life, and to continuously bring home to us afresh the good news of the Father’s sanctifying action in Jesus Christ, guaranteeing our inheritance, and empowering us to live in the reality of being ‘holy and blameless’ before God (Eph 1:4).

Given this statement, what ought we make of H R Mackintosh’s notion that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself’? I have often wondered about this statement. What is Mackintosh asserting here? Is he saying that there are different degrees of love in God? Is it any more than hyperbole to emphasise the extent and nature of God’s love? Is he here driving the wedge between God’s love for himself and his love for us that does not exist in Jesus Christ? Isn’t God’s love for us the overflow of his self-love in the trinitarian communion?

Violence and the Cross 2

Recently, Michael Jensen responded to my post on violence and the cross asking me to speculate on what Forsyth might say to Girard. After discerning that this Girard is different to this one I confessed that my only reading of Girard has been vicariously through Volf, and Hans Boersma’s book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross. While I am reluctant to comment on work where I haven’t read the primary sources, and I don’t normally like to reproduce stuff that is already on my blog somewhere else, I thought that this might be of interest to some who would otherwise miss it in the comments section. Perhaps any discussion that arises will also mean that I can learn some more about Girard and maybe even feel inspired/challenged enough to actually go and read the guy’s stuff.

Boersma writes:

‘One of the main reasons that [Girard’s] theory continues to increase in popularity is that he helps Christians avoid the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that God is involved in violence, even as he expresses his most hospitable self on the cross. This gain carries the cost, however, of the denial of a good creation. Desire, as something underlying all cultural endeavor, is inherently mimetic and thus must lead to violence, Girard insists. But is it true that mimetic contagion explains all desire and that it accounts for all violence? Girard fails to acknowledge that we often desire certain objects because of their inherent value rather than simply because other models desire them. A theology of creation that affirms its inherent goodness will insist that desire can function in wholesome ways and stems not first of all from imitation but from the positive value of the created order. Girard’s atonement theology is built on an ontology of violence that leads to a negative view of culture and is thus unable to function as a solid foundation for a positive politics of hospitality. Not only does Girard regard violence as the basis of human culture, but he also finds much of the Old Testament unworthy of the nonviolent God that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The continuity between the two Testaments gets stretched to the breaking point.’

My sense, regarding Forsyth’s response, is two fold.

Firstly, he would have never attacked Girard by name. He felt that when we we ought to expose error, we should expose the error and not attack the person. That’s the easy bit.

That said, Forsyth would see in Girard’s thinking a failure to understand not only the nature, scope and purpose of God’s atoning activity in Christ, but the nature and depth of sin and evil and the threat that sin poses not just to the world, but to God’s own being.

Whilst violence is the fruit of humanity’s angry rejection of the future intended for it by God, it also serves as part of the ‘tools’ that God uses to bring about his good purposes. So for example, Forsyth’s significant support of Britain’s role in WWI.

Forsyth insists that sin is so violent that it took the almost boisterous expression of violence (a clash of violence) to overcome it. Whenever grace and guilt collide, war it out, there will be violence – even in prayer. But it was not the violence of it that saved. It was the obedience in the midst of violence that did that. That said, Forsyth asserts that ‘it would have mattered a whole world if Jesus had met His death naturally, by accident or disease. Everything turns, not on His life having been taken from Him, but on its having been laid down. Everything, for His purpose, turns on the will to die. But, none the less, for that purpose, it had to be a death of moral violence (inflicted, that is, by human wickedness and the wresting of the law), to give its full force to both man’s sin and Christ’s blood. “Men of blood,” in the Old Testament, were not mere killers but murderers. So that we say it would have mattered a whole world if the death had not been violent and wicked, if Jesus had died of disease in His bed, or by accidental poison.’

He asserts that we feel the pain and disappointment of death as impugning the moral goodness of God. To us pain and death seem a moral outrage, a violent injustice done to the good. And it was moral outrage on God’s holiness that gave the sting and the mean misery of death for Christ. Only a great difference remains: The taste of death makes us think that it is a moral outrage on us – a tyranny; whereas Christ tasted it as the fruit of a moral outrage by us – a treason. ‘How prompt we are to accept Christ as a sympathizer with our oppressions’, he said, ‘and how slow to take Him as the accuser of our sins!’

Whether or not Girard sees more divine irony and inconsistency here than he can cope with, well I guess that that’s God’s problem – a problem that he has already taken up and answered violently in the obedience of Jesus Christ.

PS. Apologies to MJ for this being less than an ‘ideal blog entry’. See item 4 here. Learn to scroll … it’s not hard mate. You can do it. I know you can …

Violence and the Cross

‘The violent may take, but it is the meek that inherit and the just that keep. The spirit which possesses the earth and keeps possession is inspired at the folly of the cross … “The weakness of the cross” is the greatest pitfall on earth, and it mocks the empire makers as it establishes its power upon their wreck, and thrusts its fine spells through the crevices of their untempered walls. This is all very ridiculous, of course, but they laugh best who laugh last. One sits in the heavens and laughs.’ – PT Forsyth.

God was in Christ reconciling

– ‘The Christ that we trust all to is not one who died to witness for God, but one in whom God died for His own witness, and His own work on us. God was in Christ reconciling. The prime doer in Christ’s cross was God. Christ was God reconciling. He was God doing the very best for man, and
not man doing his very best before God. The former is evangelical Christianity, the latter is humanist Christianity. Christ’s history, His person, can only be understood by His work, and by a work that we apprehend in our moral experience even when we cannot comprehend it by our intelligence.’ – PT Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 27.


‘[The] cross will appear and remain the central issue of Christian doctrine only if it can be shown to be central to the ethic of the soul and of the race. It is only central to faith because’ it is central to conscience, and to the dramatic conscience of the race, nay, of God. What’ is the Atonement but the satisfaction of the conscience—God’s and man’s—the adjustment, ‘the pacification, of conscience, find especially God’s? It is the core of our religion, because it is the crisis of man’s moral drama and the solution of that moral tragedy which ‘is his collision with the holy.’ – PT Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 116.