The Crucifixion: a personal or public matter?

Added about 6 years ago by Kevin Carey

GUEST BLOG: Is the Crucifixion a personal or public matter? Kevin Carey, author of Cross Purposes, reveals his thoughts.

The tragedy of Reformation Protestantism is that it both confirmed and then gave new impetus to the notion that Christianity fundamentally concerns the relationship between God and the individual. After 1,000 years from the death of Jesus when Christians believed that Jesus died for public, collective sins of omission as well as commission, the trend began to move away from the public to the private, confirmed in the nineteenth century by Romanticism, and in the twentieth by the pressure of public atheism to reduce religion to private choice.

My new book of reflections for Good Friday, Cross Purposes, does not deny that one understanding of the Crucifixion concerns individual salvation from individual sins of commission, but it stresses that such an understanding is far too narrow. Just as the Crucifixion was itself public, its implications are public. Jesus might, in a real sense, have died for me but, actually, he died for the whole world, which puts me in my proper place.

My reflections for Good Friday were deliberately framed to bring a contemporary approach to the subject of the Cross. I am frequently accused of being deliberately provocative, but this mistakes vivid language with radical unorthodoxy. I believe that if a person turns up at church on Good Friday for a three-hour service, they are entitled to vivid language, the exercise of imagination, new and interesting ways of presenting the familiar and, if they are lucky, a fragment of new insight into the terrible events of the day.

Our internalisation of the Cross is symptomatic of our acceptance of the internalisation of Christianity imposed on us by public atheism to which we have cravenly bowed, a capitulation made worse by the far from inevitable consequence of the quasi-erotic relationship proposed between individuals and their Saviour which has led to the withdrawal by most self-styled “Evangelicals” from the public forum. The Cross is as much about social justice as it is about salvation; it is the necessary precondition for creating conditions on earth as they are in heaven. According to an understanding of the Cross crystallised by Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the death of Jesus was necessary for God’s justice – but it was also necessary for our justice.

Yet there is a deeper purpose still in seeking to explore the events of Good Friday in great detail. It is all too easy for Christians to read their Gospels so frequently that they slide over the sentences with easy familiarity, and yet the four accounts of the Cross are both self-contradictory and inconsistent with each other; there is no point resorting to the glib idea that these do not matter and that they can all be reconciled without too much effort. As an example, let’s look at whether the “Last Supper” was a Passover meal or simply a Sabbath meal. This opens up a discussion about the role of the book of Exodus in our understanding of the Cross; the relationship between Isaiah, Psalm 22 and the account in Mark raises a rich variety of questions; and Saint Paul's explorations of the theology of the Cross, in and out of Romans, is far more extensive than Lutheranism and its contemporary adherents would allow.

If the Cross is, as we claim, the central event and symbol of our Christian adherence, then we must stop confusing reverence with sloppiness. The blackness of the wood, set against the rising light of Resurrection, is not a refuge but a signpost to mission. If we Easter People have no sense of being sent out, we are no Easter people at all.

Cross Purposes is not intended to be a systematic exploration of the events of Good Friday and their ultimate meaning – how could they be when continual reading and prayer alters my own understanding? – but it is an attempt to ask questions about our personal involvement and also to ask questions about the motives and involvement of its participants: where does the balance lie between Jewish and Roman culpability? How can we square the idea of the guilt of Judas with the idea that he was simply acting in accordance with the Scriptures? How do the Gospels both describe the humiliation of peter and accept him as the Church's first leader? And how much does some resolution of these issues matter?

Finally, I should say a few words in defence of imagination. For such a critical event in human history and in the history of the relationship of God with man, although the Gospels each give us a wealth of detail, there is so much missing that the imagination craves its constructive role. When I wrote my Parish Passion Play it was, hardly surprisingly, the wicked characters who came off the page most successfully, but there is also a rich hinterland to be imagined in respect of all the key players, enriched by a detailed understanding of how people actually lived in First Century Palestine and how their daily lives were affected by the Jewish and Roman authorities. To this extent, the Bible should be our liberator not our prisoner.

Cross Purposes is not the story of my spiritual life over a decade of giving Good Friday reflections, nor is it a methodical “walk through” of all the events of Good Friday but, rather, it is like a large jar filled with curious and interesting objects which can be taken out and examined with interest and sometimes pleasure. In the way of humanity, some of the objects will ultimately disappoint or mislead. But I hope there are enough to intrigue and stimulate to make the reading worthwhile.

Cross Purposes: Reflections for Good Friday was released on 1 February 2018, and is available in paperback and all major e-book formats.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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