During the season of Lent when we consider the meaning of the cross, we should observe that the church over the centuries has never settled on one interpretation of the death of Jesus. The New Testament itself understands that the cross has far more meaning than can be squeezed into one doctrinal formula. Most contemporary understandings of the cross center on the doctrine of atonement, but even here there are various opinions as to how atonement should be understood.
I want to center on a meaning of the cross that has come to mean a great deal in my life and ministry. The cross has been called “a window into the heart of God.” Such a statement reveals that the cross has something of significance to say about the eternal nature of God. The cross is more than just an event in history. It is the key in understanding the way God deals with us and all creation. The cross is the price God pays in loving our world and in embracing creation from the inside out. The cross reveals the cost of God’s sacrificial, suffering, patient love as our Maker seeks to redeem and make whole that which is lost, wounded, rebellious, twisted, oppressed, and discounted.
The cross unveils for us something of God’s unconditional commitment to creation. S. Paul Schilling in his thoughtful book God and Human Anguish writes the following:
God intimately interpenetrates all aspects of existence. He (sic) does not stand over against the world, acting on it from without. Rather, his creative and redemptive activity underlies, permeates, and sustains it. . . Inevitably, therefore, when his creatures suffer for whatever reason, he not only knows about their suffering but concretely experiences it.
This means that God suffers what we suffer. There is not a tear that falls, a nerve ending that vibrates with pain, a groan from any part of creation that God does not share. There is not a single consequence of sin, a result of injustice, a sigh of desperate resignation that God does not experience deep within. When we think of all the pain, sin, injustice, oppression, ecological suffering, hopelessness, hunger, poverty, (and God knows what else our world experiences), we catch a glimpse of what the cross says about God’s love for and commitment to our world and to us. God takes it all into the Divine Self. Our burdens, our pain, our sin, and our struggles become God’s.
And it is on the basis of that suffering love—that unconditional solidarity – that we are redeemed. God’s commitment to us is irrevocable. We shall be loved into our healing and redemption. (And by redemption I mean “liberation” from whatever enslaves us. The Scriptures use the words “redeem” and “redemption” in reference to the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.) Creation shall be healed by the wounds of grace offered patiently, stubbornly, and tenderly. The power of the cross is the power of a love that will not let us go. God is with us. God is indeed with all creation. The mystery of the cross is that God’s compassionate (“compassion” literally means “to suffer with”) love takes unto itself all the suffering, tragedy, and sin of this world and heals and transforms them into a new creation of beauty, peace and joy.
There was a cross in the heart of God long before there was one on Calvary. That truth should give us cause to hope, rejoice, endure, celebrate, love sacrificially, and work for justice, peace, and reconciliation in our time and space—and in the end to rest in the arms of Abba who is our Companion in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.