|Crucifixion, 13th century, Athos |
Interestingly, in most Orthodox icons of Christ on the Cross
his face is peaceful, not in anguish.
"Save me from what?" my friend asked when discussing Christ and his death on the cross, some 2,000 years ago. "Sin" was my abrupt answer, knowing full well what I meant, but not understanding in the least how that answer rested in my friend's mind and heart.
Reading about Christ's crucifixion, having discussions about it and singing those old familiar hymns about power in the blood left me somewhat confused as a teenager. I accepted that Christ died for me, yet I often envisioned a mad Father, full of wrath being pleased by nothing except the spilling of his Son's blood. The full story, as told in light of the glorious Resurrection, did little to ease the stomach turning aspect of that ransom-- that human sacrifice to appease an angry Father because of the sin of mankind. Is this what love looks like? I wondered.
It was this particular aspect of Christianity that was a continual stumbling block as I tried to share my faith with others. Reiterating the same lines about Christ atoning for the sin of man did little to answer the particular questions from nonbelievers. Questions like, "Why did it have to be so brutal? Couldn't God - in His all powerful way- concoct a scheme of redemption a bit more peaceful? Couldn't He just open the doors of heaven to those who would believe in Him without a bloody sacrifice?" or the more poignant, "God desires pain to save us from pain, doesn't He?"
God desires pain? God's wrath would not be assuaged except by a gruesome crucifixion?
How would I ever be an effective witness if I couldn't wrap my head around this dichotomy of a loving God and the crucifixion of Christ as "payment" to that same loving God?
Years of reading and asking questions about salvation to the wise eventually led to the discovery of ancient Christianity. Not just the history as recorded in Scripture after Pentecost, but the following early centuries of Christians and their understanding of salvation; in particular, the Celtic people and monastics of the Egyptian desert. In these early writings, nowhere did I find language that referenced a legalistic framework for understanding Christ's sacrifice. Instead, I discovered the view of a victorious Saviour in the midst of barbarity; God incarnate coming to reconcile creation to Himself. A God who heals the brokenness caused by sin.
I began to see Christ's death as a rescue mission, not a payment for a debt incurred at birth. Christ came to rescue me from the bondage of sin, not as a legal settlement to ease God's wrath. God isn't holding us captive, sin is. That pervading sickness that affects us all... not just the druggies, the prostitutes and murderers, but the liars, the hypocrites, the self-righteous and those who live with lust quietly enveloping their hearts. No one is free of sin and all need the blessed love and redemption of Christ our Lord.
The brutality of the crucifixion had to be the means by which Christ conquered; He used the greatest weapon of the enemy -- torture and death -- to defeat the enemy. Destroying death by death. It is the greatest story ever told! He led captivity captive... one of the most powerful phrases from Scripture alludes to the smashing open of hades by Christ; death could not contain Him for He is the source of all Life. This is the earliest understanding of Christ's redemptive work on the cross and one of the reasons I am an Orthodox Christian.
The image of the Cross -- that implement of death and destruction by the mighty Romans became a symbol of victory because of the Author of Life. We must remember that Christ was God incarnate -- with legions of angels at His command. How perplexed these heavenly beings must have been to see the King of Kings willingly hanging on a tree and forgiving the filth of men who nailed Him there.
We serve a loving, compassionate and patient God. A God who provided for our broken communion with Him when sin entered the world. Like the story of the Prodigal Son, God awaits our return to Him through repentance, an acknowledgment of sin and how it wounds us. Glory to God for all things † Glory to His third day Resurrection and praise Him for the gift of salvation †