The Cross, Revisited
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As Christians around the world began their Holy Week observances this Palm Sunday, they did so to the unimaginably horrible news that two Coptic churches in Egypt were bombed during their Palm Sunday services – and over 40 people were dead because of it.
Though many of us in the West tend to romanticize the events we commemorate each year during Holy Week, narrating the nobility of a Savior willing to suffer for our sin and die to save us from eternal condemnation, the hard truth is that Jesus was publicly executed in a most humiliating fashion by an authority that deemed him a threat. He needed to be extinguished not just as a punishment for the crime of his insurrection; the punishment had to also be a matter of public visibility so as to coerce cooperation from others who were thinking they would join Jesus in his insurrection.
Seeking to preserve the Pax Romano, Pilate put Jesus through unimaginably horrific torture and execution. It was a definitive commitment to end the threat to their power that Jesus and his disciples embodied. Empires like Rome imagine that this kind of public violence is the most effective way to silence those who seek allegiance with other contenders for loyalty. It is effective. It is deadly. It is cruel beyond imagination.
I don’t want to make the same mistake. I don’t want to romanticize the suffering and brutality inflicted on the innocent by brutes who imagine they can turn hearts through fear, torture, terror, and violence. What happened to Coptic Christians in Egypt this past Palm Sunday is horrific. Their suffering is real. Their grief immense. What happened to Jesus on the cross has now been visited upon them: brutality inflicted by those who want the public displays of their violence to immobilize any whom they oppose.
There is a word to be heard in narrating again the story of the cross; but we have to be very careful with this. When Jesus becomes the noble, suffering servant dying to embrace our sin and save us from its consequences we downplay the brutality that is always intended as a tool of submission. The suffering is real, but the point here is less that it won us our salvation than it empowered our resistance. Hate was not met with hate.
Love began working out the pathway to overcoming hate, evil, brutality, and terror. The cross did not silence us. As the disciples began to experience Jesus on the other side of his brutal death, recalling the power of his message and the promise of his abiding presence beyond the grave, they took the good news of God’s redeeming and transformative love to all the ends of the Earth.
Whatever our Holy Week observances call us to this week, let us hold in our heart and our mind the Coptic Christians who, like Jesus, endured unimaginable, public violence at the hands of brutes who think that such violence silences. It doesn’t.
It did not work for Pilate and Rome; and it won’t for Islamic State either. Jesus continues to inspire love in his disciples, even in response to ugly acts of hate. Jesus continues to inspire faith in his followers, even through insufferable grief. Jesus continues to inspire hope in his Church, even when such hope wants to be extinguished by bombs.
The cross was not the last word for Jesus. Rome needed it to be, but it wasn’t. Bombs won’t be either, no matter what Islamic State intends. Telling this story again is not just a romantic rehearsal of a brutal death with a happy ending: it is an act of resistance intended to connect us with a love that will not end.
For all who suffer unjustly; and certainly for our Coptic family of faith in Egypt – we keep the faith. We promise to walk pathways of love, resisting the temptation to give in to evil. Love only endures, and we will do well to remember that as we journey our way Into the Mystic.