The Cross Is Only the Beginning

In this week’s free email newsletter from Relevant Magazine, web editor Jesse Carey asks why Christian iconography puts so much emphasis on the cross, a symbol of death, when our faith is about new life. Carey suggests that understanding sin and punishment comes naturally to us, whereas God’s grace exceeds the bounds of logic and human control:

[I]n a way, the crucifixion makes sense. For most people, judgment is logical. Death is inescapable. Witnessing a man die only takes observation. Believing He rose from a tomb requires faith. Maybe the reason many Christians seem to embrace the crucifixion and put little emphasis on the resurrection is because Jesus dying on the cross makes more sense than Him coming out of the grave.

G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom…Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner.” Chesterton makes it clear earlier in this work that he is not attacking reason, but a reliance on logic can counter the idea of faith. In other words, it is easy to make sense of the crucifixion; it is something that we can feel guilty for. Our sin put Christ on the cross. We are responsible for His death. But the gift of eternal life (which is represented by the resurrection) defies logic.

Christ rising after death grants believers the gift of eternal life, eternal life that we don’t deserve, that we didn’t earn. It is only granted by God’s grace. Trying to logically reason through the idea of grace is what would turn Chesterton’s mathematician into a madman. There is no formula for grace; we did nothing to earn it. God loved us, so Christ died and rose so we could live. After we accept His sacrifice, we owe Him nothing in return. It is poetic; it is a loving Father’s gift that can’t be figured out. Christianity is not based on works; it is based on grace, and it’s that grace that takes faith.


Starting tomorrow, I’ll be enjoying four blessed computer-free days at Wheaton College’s “Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future” conference on the early church fathers. Coming up next: quotes from Mark Galli’s Jesus Mean and Wild; more favorite poems; “Saving Jesus” Episode 11 (and why there won’t be an Episode 12). Meanwhile, in the tradition of the sitcom “clips episode”, enjoy these posts from the recent past:

George Herbert: “The Dawning”

Same-Sex Love and the Bible

Learning From Art’s Flaws

Christians Writing and Reading the Forbidden

Signs of the Apocalypse: 101 Dumbest Moments in Business

Some favorites from the CNN Money annual list of business blunders for 2006:

#16: Rising Sun Anger Release Bar

At this new watering hole in Nanjing, China, “patrons are invited to rant, curse, smash drinking glasses, and even beat workers equipped with protective gear and dressed as the target of their wrath.”

#33: Heart Attack Grill

A fine example of truth in advertising, this restaurant in Tempe, AZ offers the Quadruple Bypass Burger, “featuring 2 pounds of beef, four layers of cheese, 12 slices of bacon, and 8,000 calories.” (For those of you on a diet, the Triple Bypass is also available.)

#34: Meatcoats

Continuing the wasteful-meats theme, Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art staged an exhibit by Belgian artist Jan Fabre in which all the items were made out of meat, such as a (rather stylish, actually) coat made from raw beefsteak.

#39: Putting the Gross in GDP

Greece revises its GDP upward by 25%, thanks to a bookkeeping change that “adds in the nation’s robust black-market industries such as prostitution and money laundering.” But the joke’s on them as they lose $600 million in European Union aid for poorer nations.

#51: Manual Stimulation at Honda

“Owner’s manuals in more than a million Honda vehicles list a toll-free number to help drivers reach the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unfortunately, Honda incorrectly prints the area code as 800 rather than 888, leading callers to a recorded message in which a woman’s sultry voice encourages them to ‘call 1-800-918-TALK for just 99 cents per minute.'”
#64: Please Don’t Eat the Dragons

The Powys County Council in Wales ordered Black Mountains Smokery to change the name of its Welsh Dragon Sausages because they do not, in fact, contain dragon meat.

#69: Santa’s Got to Go

Britain’s Royal Mail releases a Christmas stamp that looks like Santa defecating into a chimney. The Church of England protests the stamp as insufficiently religious — perhaps they’d prefer baby Jesus getting his diaper changed?

And my personal favorite:

#99: Kiddie Stripper Pole

“‘Unleash the sex kitten inside … soon you’ll be flaunting it to the world and earning a fortune in Peekaboo Dance Dollars.’ – From a product listing by $75 billion British retailer Tesco, plugging the $100 Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit – which includes an 8.5-foot chrome pole, a ‘sexy dance garter,’ and play money for stuffing into said garter – in the Toys & Games section of its website. After complaints from parent groups, Tesco decides to keep selling the item as a ‘fitness accessory’ but agrees to remove the listing from the toy section.”

Ken Nye: “Stars in her Pocket”

Millions lie before her.
She overlooks most, but here is one
that warrants inspection.
Something in the smooth roundness of the glistening wet stone
catches her eye,
like a shooting star.
Stooping, she plucks it from the foaming sand,
holds it in her hand,
rolls it over,
examines its veins
and blended colors.
But it lacks something.
She discards it
and begins again to scan the stars before her,
washed every few seconds
by an infinite number of swirling eddies,
one after the other, as she searches for the perfect stone.
Here is one of unusual……..What?
What is it about this stone
that gets her attention?
What is it
that refuels the possibility of selection?
A color that echoes a chord in her memory?
A design in the miracle mix of magma and malachite?
An elevation of the thrill of discovery,
the wonder of the limitless galaxy of miniature globes,
fresh and pure,
perennially washed and waiting for her?
She will do this all afternoon
and end up with a pocket
pulling the side of her shorts into a sag.
Returning to the blanket, she will disgorge the stars
onto a terry cloth towel and sit and gaze at them,
as one contemplates the heavens
on a crisp, moonless night in deep winter.

Chalice of mysteries,
each stone an untold story of creation,
infinite age,
flawless beauty even in its abundance.
Millions lie before her,
yet it is only these that she has chosen.
Do they recognize the honor?
Will they ever again,
in the infinite eons of time,
be judged worthy of wonder?

This poem is reprinted from Searching for the Spring: Poetic Reflections of Maine (TJMF Publishing, 2005).

N.T. Wright on the Redemption of the Whole Cosmos

“Where the New Age has made its greatest inroads has been, I think, at the points where the church has allowed itself to slip into the prevailing dualism, with a distant god and a negative attitude towards creation (including one’s own personal bit of creation, that is, one’s body). The New Age offers a sudden and exciting reversal of this: creation, including oneself, is divine. Paul’s gospel offers the reality of which this is the parody. Creation is not God, but God has made it to reflect his own beauty and, ultimately, to share the freedom of the glory of his children. Human beings are not divine, but they are designed to reflect his own image, and to be filled with his own Spirit…

“In particular, the Pauline redefinition of God included, as we saw, the redefinition of the righteousness of God… (In Romans 8) Paul outlines and celebrates the hope that one day the entire cosmos will have its own great exodus, its liberation from bondage to decay. The point is this: the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God’s means of saving the whole world. It was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell (whatever you might mean by that) Thus, when God is faithful to the covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Spirit, it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another, merely different, private little group of people who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket. It is not insignificant that the critical passages at this point, the middle of Romans 8 and the middle of 1 Corinthians 15, have themselves often been consigned to a kind of exegetical and theological limbo, with Protestant exegesis in particular appearing quite unsure what to do with them.

“I suggest, in fact, that we should be prepared to think through the question of justice—God’s justice for the world, in the eventual future, and anticipated in the present—as part of the theme of what we cal the righteousness of God. The word dikaiosune, after all, can just as easily be translated ‘justice’ as ‘righteousness’. If it is true that God intends to renew the whole cosmos through Christ and by the Spirit—and if that isn’t true then Paul is indeed talking nonsense in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15—then, just as the holiness of Christian living in the present is a proper, albeit partial, fitful and puzzling, anticipation of the future life of the resurrection, so acts of justice, mercy and peace in the present are proper, albeit inevitably partial, fitful and puzzling anticipations of God’s eventual design. They are not lost or wasted; they are not, in the old caricature, a matter of oiling the wheels of a machine that is about to run over a cliff. They are signs of hope for a world that groans in travail, waiting for its promised liberation.

“When we explore God’s righteousness to its very end, it reveals (as we saw) the love of God—the creator’s love for the cosmos he has made, and his determination to remake it through the victory of Christ over the powers that deface and distort it. God intends to flood creation with his own love, until the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. If the gospel reveals the righteousness of God, and if the church is commanded and authorized to announce that gospel, it cannot rest content—for exegetical as well as theological reasons—with anything less than this complete vision. And it cannot therefore rest content while injustice, oppression and violence stalk God’s world. After all, Christians are commanded to bring one small piece of creation—their own bodies—into obedience to the healing love of God in Christ. Christians are to live in the present in the light of what God intends us to be in the future. That, as we saw, is what holiness is all about. How can we then not apply the same point to the whole of creation?”

      — from What Saint Paul Really Said (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), pp.162-64

Alleluia! Christ Is Risen

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God hath brought his Israel
into joy from sadness:
loosed from Pharoah’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters,
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.

‘Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ hath burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun hath risen;
all the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from his light, to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

Now the queen of seasons, bright
with the day of splendor,
with the royal feast of feasts,
comes its joy to render;
comes to glad Jerusalem,
who with true affection
welcomes in unwearied strains
Jesus’ resurrection.

Neither might the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal
hold thee as a mortal:
but today amidst the twelve
thou didst stand, bestowing
that thy peace which evermore
passeth human knowing.

Alleluia now we cry
to our King Immortal,
who triumphant burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
alleluia, with the Son
God the Father praising;
alleluia yet again
to the Spirit raising.

Words: John of Damascus (ca. 675-749), 750;
trans. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), 1853
MIDI: St. Kevin (Arthur Sullivan, 1872)

Sing along at Oremus Hymnal online – your Episcopal Church in a box! Happy Easter, everybody.

Carl Phillips: “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm”

So that each
is its own, now–each has fallen, blond stillness.
Closer, above them,
the damselflies pass as they would over water,
if the fruit were water,
or as bees would, if they weren’t
somewhere else, had the fruit found
already a point more steep
in rot, as soon it must, if
none shall lift it from the grass whose damp only
softens further those parts where flesh
goes soft.

There are those
whom no amount of patience looks likely
to improve ever
, I always said, meaning
gift is random,
assigned here,
here withheld–almost always
as it’s turned out: how your hands clear
easily the wreckage;
how you stand–like a building for a time condemned,
then deemed historic. Yes. You
will be saved.

(Read Carl Phillips’ bio and more poems here.)

Good Friday Meditations: Stations of the Cross

In the Catholic church that I attended this afternoon for a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross (the episodes of the Passion story from Jesus’ death sentence to his burial), the priest and lector read these amazing reflections by Mother M. Angelica, P.C.P.A., which can be found on the website of the Christian network EWTN. I encourage my readers to seek out the full text; below, I quote some passages that were especially meaningful to me:

The Second Station: Jesus Carries His Cross

How could any human impose such a burden upon Your torn and bleeding body, Lord Jesus? Each movement of the cross drove the thorns deeper into Your Head. How did You keep the hatred from welling up in Your Heart? How did the injustice of it all not ruffle your peace? The Father’s Will was hard on You – Why do I complain when it is hard on me?

…My worldly concept is that suffering, like food, should be shared equally. How ridiculous I am, dear Lord. Just as we do not all need the same amount of material food, neither do we need the same amount of spiritual food and that is what the cross is in my life, isn’t it – spiritual food proportional to my needs.


The Third Station: Jesus Falls the First Time

My Jesus, it seems to me, that as God, You would have carried Your cross without faltering, but You did not. You fell beneath its weight to show me You understand when I fall. Is it pride that makes me want to shine even in pain? You were not ashamed to fall- to admit the cross was heavy. There are those in world whom my pride will not tolerate as I expect everyone to be strong, yet I am weak. I am ashamed to admit failure in anything.

If the Father permits failure in my life just as He permitted You to fall, then I must know there is good in that failure which my mind will never comprehend. I must not concentrate on the eyes of others as they rest upon me in my falls. Rather, I must reach up to touch that invisible hand and drink in that invisible strength ever at my side….


The Eleventh Station: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross

It is hard to imagine a God being nailed to a cross by His own creatures. It is even more difficult for my mind to understand a love that permitted such a thing to happen!…

It seems, dear Jesus, Your love has held You bound hand and foot as Your heart pleads for a return of love. You seem to shout from the top of the hill “I love you – come to me – see, I am held fast – I cannot hurt you – only you can hurt Me.” How very hard is the heart that can see such love and turn away. Is it not true I too have turned away when I did not accept the Father’s Will with love? Teach me to keep my arms ever open to love, to forgive and to render service – willing to be hurt rather than hurt, satisfied to love and not be loved in return.


The Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross

God is dead! No wonder the earth quaked, the sun hid itself, the dead rose and Mary stood by in horror. Your human body gave up it’s soul in death but Your Divinity, dear Jesus, continued to manifest its power. All creation rebelled as the Word made Flesh departed from this world. Man alone was too proud to see and too stubborn to acknowledge truth.

Redemption was accomplished! Man would never have an excuse to forget how much You loved him. The thief on Your right saw something he could not explain – he saw a man on a tree and knew He was God. His need made him see his own guilt and Your innocence. The Promise of eternal life made the remaining hours of his torture endurable.

A common thief responded to Your love with deep Faith, Hope, and Love. He saw more than his eyes envisioned – he felt a Presence he could not explain and would not argue with. He was in need and accepted the way God designed to help him.

Forgive our pride, dear Jesus as we spend hours speculating, days arguing and often a lifetime in rejecting Your death, which is a sublime mystery. Have pity on those whose intelligence leads them to pride because they never feel the need to reach out to the Man of Sorrows for consolation.

That is my prayer today for all whom I have offended and all who have offended me.

Lenten Sonnets and Reflections from Touchstone Magazine

Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments, the blog of Touchstone Magazine, offers these moving reflections on the particularity of love, human and divine:

The gentle souled Albert Einstein, possessed of a devout spirit, once said that he believed in God, but God as conceived by the philosopher Spinoza, Deus sive natura — God, or nature, or the laws of physics. When Planck set forth his theory of quantum mechanics, Einstein at first rejected it, tartly asserting that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Something about the particularity of Planck’s theory offended him, was a mote to trouble the mind’s eye. I wonder if it is the same tiny but scandalous mote that troubles the minds of men who cannot see love at the heart of the universe. A law is abstract and general; if I step off the limb of a tree, gravity doesn’t care who I am or what I desire; I fall. But love is particular, and the dark history of man is studded with moments of love, when nothing in the world matters but this single being I love, for whom I would give life itself.

It is the stunning claim of Christianity and Judaism that this world is not a vast machine but a story, with startling turns, moments of truth, and characters unique and unrepeatable.
Dr. Esolen’s post is one of a series reprinting and commenting on sonnets by Fr. Donaghy, S.J., about the Stations of the Cross. Read the first entry here.

Gabriel Welsch: “Pressing Business”

Trees leaf out—roses and lilacs
sequin with buds. Smooth tense skins
tighten like a promise. We’ll break them down.
We’ll press them, force them flat
for a record. Press them within the pages
of an unabridged dictionary, the RHS
encyclopedia of gardening. Let them feel
the weight of the language we have heaped
upon them. The weight is heavy indeed:
philosophy, the bible, a dictionary,
a Rookwood pot—terra cotta, urn-shaped,
paperbacks stuffed inside, the weight
of more learning and cultural import
to crush the color of a tulip flat, a tulip
that had come a long time down to this,
pushed in a towel in a dictionary under a pot,
this blossom of Dutch monarchs, this Mercedes
of mercantilism, this blossom to kill a king for, this
delicate gem of no facets. We write the tags,
take their names and learn them,
speak them in our home, teach their curves
to our tongue and teeth, feel
language work even here, simply by its
accumulated weight. In this way,
syllables blossom, the names lose
their context of weeds, keep the color
slipped from the sun.

Read more poems from Welsch’s book Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (WordTech Editions, 2006) here.

Marjorie Maddox: “How to Fit God into a Poem”

Part I

Read him.
Break him into stanzas.
Give him a pet albatross
and a bon voyage party.
Glue archetypes on his wings with Elmers,
or watch as he soars past the Slough of Despond
in a DC-10.

Draw wrinkles on his brow with eyeliner
until his beard turns as white as forgiven sin.
Explicate him.
Call him “Love.”
Translate him into Norwegian.
Examine original manuscripts
for proof of his kinship to Shakespeare.

Make him rhyme,
Cram him into iambic pentameter.
Let him read War and Peace ten times
and give a book report to third graders.
Edit out references to sin
and insert miracles.
Award him a Nobel Prize.

Then, after you’ve published him annually
in The New Yorker for thirty years,
crucify him. Proclaim it a suicide.

Part II

Let him whirl through your veins
like a hurricane
until your cells gyrate,
until you salivate at the sound of his breath.
Let him bristle your nerves like cat hairs
and laminate your limbs.
On All Saints’ Day, meditate
and wait patiently.
Then, he will come,
then, he will twist your tongue,
pucker your skin,
spew out his life on the page.

Read more selections from Maddox’s collection Weeknights at the Cathedral (WordTech Editions, 2006) here. Read a review in Arabesques Press here.