We all received a sign of the Cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of these 40 days and nights of Lent. These ashes remind us of our origin and ultimate destination. What an incredibly rich symbol this sign of the Cross! I propose that the Cross be the ultimate sign of God’s mercy.
Writing about the Cross, Pope Emeritus Benedict writes: “The Cross is his throne, from which he draws the world to himself. From this place of total self-sacrifice, from this place of truly divine love, he reigns as the true king in his own way — a way that neither Pilate nor the members of the Sanhedrin had been able to comprehend” (Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pp. 211-12).
Pope Francis has stated “that Christianity does not exist without a Cross.” It is impossible, in fact, to have Christianity without the Cross and the Cross without Jesus Christ. Nor is the Cross an ornament to be put on an altar or simply worn around our necks. It is the sublime mystery of God’s abiding mercy and love for us, for He “annihilated himself to save us; was made sin.” And that took place on the Cross. The mystery of the Cross is the recognition that our wounds — the wounds that each of us bears due to our sin — could only be healed by Jesus’ own wounds when He died on the Cross for us. In one of his daily homilies, Pope Francis said: “The only way to heal is to look at the Cross, to look at God who takes upon himself our sins: my sin is there.” Yes, the Cross is the incredible means for our healing and new life in Christ.
The scene is dramatic. There is not one cross but three. Jesus’ death on the Cross between the other two crosses, crosses of two criminals, dramatically signifies His solidarity with the world of human suffering and the world of sin, the mystery of sin. On the Cross, He became sin for us. His profound agony on the Cross signals His solidarity with our personal suffering, whatever it might be, suffering unique to each of us, physical or mental, perhaps the terrible hurt of aridity in our prayer lives, the need to seek a deepened faith or the pain of broken or challenged family relationships. Jesus, pinned between two others, identified and embraced our pain and made it His own. Jesus suffered not alone, but with two suffering criminals, with each of us. He knows and identifies with our specific human suffering. Not one of us should ever suffer alone nor be insensitive to those who are suffering.
Christian behavior, the example of the innocent Lamb going to slaughter, is a silent, effective and powerful proclamation of the Good News, the ultimate sign of mercy. It is wordless witness. It is Jesus’ kind of merciful witness. Not only His deed of death, but His word from the Cross bespeaks mercy, forgiveness, compassion. There is no disparity between what He suffered on the Cross and what He said from that unique pulpit. The Cross became a unique pulpit of mercy.
Punctuating the evil and cruel treatment Jesus suffered, we hear a voice, His prayerful voice, a voice from the Cross of divine generosity which is so very consoling — “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” This is the first of seven sets of words from the Cross. His first words, unique to Luke’s Gospel (which could be called the Gospel of forgiveness), are directed to His Father, but on behalf not of His friends but of His enemies. It is as if Jesus’ exhortation to forgive not simply seven times, but seven times seventy times (Mt 18:21), takes on new credibility, new vitality and new meaning for us. The words of the Our Father, Jesus’ prayer par excellence, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” make more and more sense, maybe for the first time. God, after all, is the author of that prayer.
Jesus witnessed concretely to His own teaching — in the midst of His awful suffering on the pulpit of the Cross. His first word is not only a teaching. It is a prayerful act of mercy. In effect, it is a summary of the Gospel of Mercy — the restorative power of our God. For sure, it was a terrible scene, yet one punctuated with a haunting beauty that came forth with credibility from the magnificent love of His forgiving and merciful heart.
The Cross, ultimately and definitively illumined by the Resurrection, is, however, not primarily a sign of death, although death took place there. It was not just any death — but the death of One who put death to death forever. The Cross is thus a sign of life. It is the tree of life. It is not a sign of frustration nor of defeat, but is the ultimate sign of mercy and hope and victory for you and me who call ourselves Christians. It is the constant reminder of Christ’s presence to us precisely and amidst our own daily suffering. Where our lives experience burden, routine, inner conflict, illness, the various faces of suffering, Christ’s Cross reminds us that He walked that path before, and we are not alone; He continues to walk with us in our daily crosses.
Our eyes must always be fixed on Jesus himself. After His earthly message had been rejected, He decided to walk in the path of suffering, our suffering. Embracing suffering, for each one of us (which He actually did), was truly God’s final offer of mercy. He knew suffering from the inside.
In theological language, we say He actually took our place in His suffering and death. It is called “substitutionary atonement.” For only God and God alone can deliver us from our deepest adversity, the affliction of death. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21).
In Him, God has been thus revealed as a God of mercy. Mercy goes beyond the requirement of justice. In fact, God’s mercy is His justice, and God’s justice is His mercy. He justifies us through His mercy. In His mercy, God seeks to serve justice. Justice is tempered by mercy. Or, as Pope Francis wrote in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, “With mercy and forgiveness, God goes beyond justice, He subsumes it and exceeds it in a higher event in which we experience love, which is at the root of true justice” (p. 78). He is, after all, our redeemer. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions brought us to life with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). He is our Savior. And that took place on the gibbet of the Cross as illumined by the Resurrection. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in His great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pt 1:3).
Stated in another way, Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus, with which he opened this Year of Mercy: “If God limited himself to only justice, He would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with His mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.… God’s justice is His mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 21). He ends this section of the bull by saying — and it is important to ponder — that: “Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgment on all of us and on the whole world, because through it He offers us the certitude of love and new life.”
Or as we hear in the first preface on the Passion of the Lord (from the Roman Missal): “For through the saving Passion of your Son the whole world has received a heart to confess the infinite power of our majesty, since by the wondrous power of the Cross your judgment on the world is now revealed and the authority of Christ crucified.”
Not Innocent Bystanders
You and I are not innocent bystanders in that supreme act of mercy by our God, as if He were simply our proxy. No, Cardinal Walter Kasper writes to this point in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life: “Substitutionary atonement is, of course, not an act of replacement, in which God in Jesus Christ effects our salvation without our involvement. God reconciles us with himself to such an extent that He reestablishes the covenantal relationship” (p. 75). The cardinal, moreover, quotes Augustine, who says very clearly: “The one who created us without us does not want to redeem us without us. The act of redemption enables us to say ‘yes’ anew in faith or to withhold our assent. As much as the act of redemption is exclusively Christological, it is at the same time inclusive and it involves us.”
Jesus thus includes us in His self-sacrifice on the Cross, and by such action He liberates us for a new life and makes each of us a new creation. It is the victory of mercy, pure and simple, His restorative power. With reference to the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, St. John Paul II taught: “Believing in the crucified Son means ‘seeing the Father,’ means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-à-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world” (Dives in Misericordia, No. 7).
The Cross is the ultimate sign of mercy, the mercy for each and every one of us revealed on the Cross by His victory over sin and death by which our salvation was won. We must never be afraid to look at the Cross, to ponder its meaning ever anew, to wear a Cross, publicly to show ashes in the sign of the Cross, to have a Cross in our offices or on our desk. Embrace the Cross. Kiss the Cross on Good Friday. It is where mercy took on a human face, a face of perduring love. It was our salvation from ourselves and for God. We must focus, as well, on the pierced heart of Jesus, the merciful heart of Jesus, from whence came blood and water. We must focus on the face of innocent suffering. It has many faces. We must finally focus on the face of the Father, rich in mercy.
How can we, moreover, not forget that refrain from the Stations of the Cross, that spiritual walk with Jesus in the presence of His mother, that wonderful Lenten tradition in our Church: “We adore thee O Christ and we bless thee because by thy holy Cross, thou has redeemed the world.” And how can we not forget the theology of the Cross found in that ancient hymn of St. Paul to the Philippians, speaking of Jesus, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). And the story does not end there, for Paul continues, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him.” Or as he would write later to the Corinthians: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. / Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).
Thus, on the Cross, God’s mercy and, with it, life, our life, has ultimately been victorious. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7). Mercy is thus the sum of the Good News, of the entire Gospel itself. For by His wounds we are healed (see Is 53:5; 1 Pt 2:24).
I conclude with the compelling words of Cardinal Kasper, who writes in his book on mercy: “To believe in the crucified Son is to believe that love is present in the world and that it is more powerful than hate and violence, more powerful than all the evil in which human beings are entangled. ‘Believing in this love means believing in mercy’” (p. 82). And the Cross is the ultimate sign of mercy.
MSGR. PETER J. VAGHI is pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.