Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Power and Powerlessness

Feast of Exaltation of the Cross

The Cross of Christ, the centre and pinnacle of God’s saving work, is also the centerpiece of our faith. The cross reveals the most profound depths of God’s love: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us that “the cross … is the definitive sign par excellence given to us so that we might understand the truth about man and the truth about God; we have all been created and redeemed by a God who sacrificed his only Son out of love. This is why the Crucifixion … is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he give himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.” (Deus Caritas Est, 12)

Nevertheless, the cross remains a sign of contradiction – it is both an unthinkable disgrace and yet a potent source of grace. It has inspired confidence in armies to march into battle and others to sue for peace; it has been used as a palpable symbol of power as well as powerlessness. And so it is both despised as well as coveted by one human power or another – Constantine used it as a talisman of power in the civil war with his brother and the Persians claimed it as their greatest battle trophy over the Byzantines.

So, how is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness? The symbolism of power hidden in the cross is often lost on us, and is only revealed as a mystery of revelation. The Cross represents the Sovereign authority of God and his providence. This is certainly difficult to comprehend. Yet, what seems to us to be failure is, in God’s eyes, the victory of sacrificial love. It is on the cross, that Christ receives the highest exaltation from God, ironically, at the moment he suffered the greatest humiliation at the hands of men. As Christ was lifted up on the Cross, now by means of the Cross, he lifts up humanity, and indeed all creation. As today’s gospel reminds us, “for God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved”. The Cross possesses the power to forgive sins which are hidden, the power to heal consciences and human hearts. It is there that we have been set free of the debt of sin and liberated from the clutches of death.

But paradoxically, the cross is also a symbol and an instrument of powerlessness. There are few things that can match the depravity of this instrument of torture and death. For a brief moment, where hours seem like eternity, the Son of God gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that He could die at our hands. On the wood of the cross, the most powerful being in the universe chose to be powerless. The Lutheran theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes the profound significance of this moment, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” So what God has done is that He took an instrument of evil, an instrument that brings death and transformed it so that it gives life, brings goodness and healing, and that’s what we hear Jesus saying about himself, “When I am lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, then I will give life.” The instrument of death becomes an instrument of healing, life and salvation.

The power and the powerlessness of the cross provide us with the necessary lens to view our own suffering, our daily crosses. St John Paul II, who prophetically wrote his first encyclical on Suffering, and would later suffer that fate in the last years of his pontificate, uses the cross to formulate his answer to man’s perennial dilemma – Why do we have to suffer. The saintly Pope stated, with piercing simplicity, that the answer has "been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ." Each of us is called to "share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished." Through his only-begotten Son, God "has confirmed His desire to act especially through suffering, which is man's weakness and emptying of self, and He wishes to make His power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self." 

And this is the way we experience God’s power here on earth, sometimes to our great frustration, and this is the way that Jesus was deemed powerful during his lifetime. The Gospels make this clear. Jesus was born powerless, and he died helpless on a cross. Yet both his birth and his death show the kind of power on which we can ultimately build our lives. The cross of Christ, therefore, teaches us that we can find power in weakness, in that which makes us vulnerable and even seemingly powerless.

Perhaps, what makes it so difficult to accept the good news of the cross, is that we are stubbornly hold on to power; we want to have a “sense of control.” Henri Nouwen writes, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” Most of us fear our powerlessness in the face of illness and death. We would like to retain an element of control, even though we realise that dying often involves the very opposite: a total loss of control, over our muscles, our emotions, our minds, our bowels and our very lives, as our human framework succumbs to powerful disintegrative forces.

Even when those disintegrative forces become extreme and our suffering may seem overwhelming, however, an important spiritual journey always remains open for us. This path is a "road less traveled," a path that, unexpectedly, enables us to achieve genuine control in the face of suffering and even death. The hallmark of this path is the personal decision to accept our sufferings, actively laying down our life on behalf of others by embracing the particular kind of death God has ordained for us, patterning our choice on the choice consciously made by Jesus Christ. As no one had ever done before, Jesus charted the path of love-driven sacrifice, choosing to lay down his life for his friends. He was no mere victim in the sense of being a passive and unwilling participant in his own suffering and death. He was in control. No one could possibly take his life from him, unless he chose to lay it down.

Jesus foresaw that his greatest work lay ahead as he ascended Calvary to embrace his own powerlessness and self-emptying. Paradoxically, it was when he most seemed powerless, that he was most powerful. The cross would prove victorious when meeting our ancient enemies on the battlefield – sin, death and evil would be defeated by the very sacrifice of Christ himself. Jesus' radical embracing of his Passion — and our radical embracing of our own — marks the supreme moment of a person, whose life seems otherwise spinning out of control or into chaos, as God assumed control of one’s life and destiny through our willing immersion into His hope-filled and redemptive designs.

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