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Victim or Victor

Victim or Victor

    Let me add a new word to your vocabulary... at least, for many of you: soteriology.  As in "the study of salvation."

    That's the real underlying issue in the brouhaha in press and pulpit over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" (which I have yet to see, and probably will not see).  Mr. Gibson, a Tridentine Catholic if ever there was one, and proud to admit it at every opportunity, sees Christ's death on the cross in a quite specific, doctrinal way. It owes far more to the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross than to the gospels.  The gospels, despite what you may have read in the reviews and the promotions, tell precious little about Jesus' suffering, just a verse or three.  The fourteen Stations of the Cross, an integral part of pre-Vatican II piety that continues somewhat abated in the Catholic Church, depict in exquisite detail the broken body and the flowing blood of the Savior as he makes his way to Golgotha. 

    I can understand how those nostalgic for the Latin Mass and the pre-Pope John XXIII institution might rally behind Mr. Gibson's version of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.  That soteriology, in which we are passive participants in the drama of Jesus' sacrifice and its blood-red imagery, was set aside by Vatican II.  That Council favored a vision of Jesus as more the victor than the victim on the cross. 

    That's why all the bloody crucifixes have been removed from the wall behind the high altar (which also is gone).  Like St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hartford: we spent an evening there last week listening to Maurice Durufle's "Requiem."  The choir was situated up front.  The nave is as tall as it is long.  On the high front wall floodlights of red, blue, green, yellow, and white played against a large bas relief of Jesus.  On the cross.  Robed.  And one had to look real hard to see that he was actually on the cross. Not a hint of blood. No agony. Nails, yes, if you looked carefully. But the two beams of wood behind him served more as a throne or a launching pad.  Here is a savior ready to lead his people in triumph over death, evil, and sin... not the battered, bloody, and beaten Lamb of God going to his death as a sheep to be slaughtered.

    No wonder Mel Gibson deplores Vatican II, referring to it as a wrong turn the Roman Catholic Church took on the way to eternity. 

    But why, oh why, would the CEO  of the Southern Baptist Convention be among "The Passion's" most fervent promoters?  The answer (and here's where that new word comes into play) is a coincidence of soteriology.  Fundamental Protestants (they may prefer to be called evangelicals, but that's too good a word, like catholic too, to give away to just anyone who claims it) buy into the substitutionary theory of the atonement.  It is an idea always latent in Christian thought about the cross, because the New Testament, and its selection of quotes from the Old Testament, often uses language from the ancient Hebrew temple sacrifice.  Even the latest edition of the United Methodist Hymnal includes a text by William Cowper to a 19th century campmeeting melody, "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood"... "drawn from Emmanuel's veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains."

    "The Passion of The Christ" vividly illustrates The Fountain.  Which/Who moves us to sympathy, gratitude, and an overwhelming sense of the pain a good man endured so that we wouldn't have to.  God's righteous anger is appeased. The eternal price has been paid. We are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.  Believe it and be saved!        

    There is no denying the Fundamentalists' claim that the substitutionary atonement is in the Word of God.  It is.  But it's not all there is.  The cross can be read as God's reaching out to us in reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:19 and Ephesians 2:11-21), a gracious second mile God in Christ moves toward us... with the expectation we shall do as much for others.  The cross can be read, as Pierre Abelard claimed (and as a whole generation of Protestant preachers, my forbears, did) as an example of self-sacrifice to which followers should "go and do likewise," as in Jesus' own exhortation to his disciples, "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34, and nearly identical passages in Matthew and Luke).  Bloodless substitutionary themes, as forty years of my confirmands should be able to tell you, are evoked by other words applied to the cross, such as redemption and justification.

    But, for my money, the post Vatican II Catholics are on the right track.  The Cross is always to be seen through the light of an Easter dawn; and from that moment, however intense the suffering of Good Friday, the final message is that Jesus triumphed.  And he did it for us.  Over everything that threatens to take us down, whether it be inside of us or outside.  We are not passive participants.  We are swept along with the tide of grace from God's vast ocean of mercy.  And I am moved to sing a hymn not yet set to music, written by an Irish monk, Gerard Manley Hopkins: "I am all at once what Christ is, |since he was what I am, and |This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, |Is immortal diamond."

    That man on the cross?  He bleeds for us, not just to make us feel bad or sad; he dies that we might live as he did, for others and for ever.

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