The Cross of Christ: Embarrassment or Reason to Boast?
Here begins the first a several blogs posts for the Easter season on the Resurrection. This is simply some brief reflections on a favorite John Updike poem.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
—John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964
In Galatians 6:14, St. Paul said, “may I boast in nothing but the cross of Christ.” For a Christian the cross is a tremendous source of pride and cause for awe, as we boast in a God who took on human flesh and became man, thereby committing the greatest act of humility the world had ever seen. Similarly, He took the full force of all the world’s evil onto himself, defeating sin and death in the greatest act of love the world had ever seen.
Though St. Paul boasted in the cross, for much of modern society and many people, even some claiming the name of Christian, the cross is not a source of pride, but a source of embarrassment. It was of those that John Updike wrote warning lest they be embarrassed by the miracle.
Modern embarrassment with the idea of a God who took on flesh, died, and then rose in glorified flesh essentially dates to the so-called Enlightenment and rise of materialism toward the end of the eighteenth century. Modern people “knew” that dead men did not rise as their silly unenlightened ancestors, bless their fruit of the looms, had believed. This change affected even theology as 20th century theologians began to reject the reality of the Resurrection. Rudolph Bultmann, (I think) remarked that no one who had seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope could be expected to believe in the literal Resurrection. Consequently, he turned the Resurrection into a metaphor, a sign of the call to authentic existence in the face of death.
A modern material mind cannot believe in the Resurrection, it believes that dead men do not rise. Yet, the modern mind, still does not become wholly irreligious. Like Bultmann, it may try to retain some “spiritual” (though the belief is really very unspiritual) metaphorical meaning, thereby “mocking God with metaphor.” The modern mind, like the pagan antique mind, cannot accept a literal, physical Resurrection. God as matter is repellent to it.
It is a strange thing that the more materialist the word becomes, the more disgusted with matter it becomes. A literal resurrection is foolishness to the gentiles, but a “spiritual” religion such as Buddhism or the eastern paganisms are perfectly acceptable. This disgust with matter may come from the fact that in a material universe, the universe is simply, as one writer put it, the random product of time plus chance. There is nothing to give it purpose or meaning, and hence nothing to dignify it. And so matter and the material world becomes a prison.
This embarrassment with the crucifixion, however, is nothing new; rather it goes back to the beginning. Paul in Corinthians wrote that ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” Peter himself confessed Our Lord as Messiah, but then objected to the Crucifixion and was denounced as Satan. Indeed, disgust with a God become man who suffered, died, and rose, goes back further still. One of the speculations about Satan’s fall, was that God revealed to him the episode of the cross and Satan objected. Satan refused to adore a God who would so humble himself and become man. He was too enlightened.
To the Christian, however, the cross is not an embarrassment. Rather, the love and humility of God become man, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and the Resurrection are not a cause for embarrassment, but a source of pride, and indeed, the only real source of pride in the whole universe. Children boast on the playground that “my daddy can beat your daddy.” The Christian can similarly boast, with St. Paul, that Our Father, the God become man in Jesus, has fought and beaten the entire forces of evil, sin, and death, and Resurrexit.