Meditations upon the cross were an integral part of Medieval prayer books. But what does the cross mean for us now? If I practice a this-worldly spirituality, then the idea of the cross as a gateway to a far away heaven won’t be tremendously helpful to me. I can say that the cross saved me from my sins, and even that it saved the whole world from its sins, but I want an understanding of the cross that doesn’t presume that salvation means something that happens after this life over. What is salvation in the here and now, and how does the cross help people to attain it?
It’s been helpful for me to reimagine what heaven consists of. N.T. Wright suggests that heaven is another dimension of existence, but one that we can enter, however briefly, from this dimension. So when I’m engaged in centering prayer, and I come to those moments of balance where I feel an infusion of light and peace, I have stepped a toe into heaven. Or when I’m going about my daily life, and am suddenly infused with the purest sense of joy, this grace is a moment of heaven. Wright goes on to say that reality is both the heavenly dimension and the earthly one, and that when we see through to that place of light and peace, we’re not seeing “true” reality, but only half of reality. The other half is the rivers, the streets, the dirt and grime, the bright sunlight, the herons and hawks of this world. To participate in reality, we must participate in both.
Jesus, being both God and man, participated perfectly in both, and our imitation of him leads us to want to do likewise. But was the cross necessary? Couldn’t he have shown us how to do this without dying an agonizing death? Hadn’t he already shown us, before the temple priests had him arrested and Pilate sentenced him to judicial murder? My base assumption is that it was unnecessary for him to die, but that once the mechanics of his death were set in motion, it was necessary for him not to resist it. We killed him because we’re frightened of lives spent immersed in true reality. Glimpses of heaven tend to make us realize that all our possessions and privilege can, at most, only give us half a life. And to have a whole life, lived in both realities, we have to reorientate our priorities, and allow the sense of self that we carry to be remade. This is a very painful process. We fight to keep our illusions intact. And if someone else has to die so that our false selves can live, so be it. It was Jesus’s very statement of true reality, both in his words and his person, that freaked people out and threatened them. And that was why they killed him.
A life that is perfectly balanced between the two halves of reality will not be convinced by the illusions of either one. Jesus couldn’t enter into the anger and the resistance of the false self. Nor could he simply escape into heaven. He chose to accept his condemnation because he was so perfectly balanced between both the heavenly and earthly dimensions. I think he chose it with a sense of bewilderment and sorrow. Why couldn’t the priests and the Roman authorities and the jeering crowds simply accept that there is another way to live one’s life? Why did they start with the base assumption that everyone was like them, including Jesus, and would seek political power and control over the world they lived in? I think he felt sad for them. And in this first moment of the walk to the cross, that sorrow and bewilderment predominate.