Roger Scruton always passed Good Friday by listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He did so because, he said, “the crucifixion of Christ is lived through by the choir and congregation.” Of course, many Christians are not, like Scruton, consciously aware of how art has interpreted the death and resurrection of Christ. In a gesture that is both moving and beautiful, they simply go to their churches and kneel to kiss the Cross.
I have seen people who are barely able to walk, struggle to the ground to venerate the image of Christ on the Holy Tree. That is because, even as the forces of secularism rampage across the West, something still calls to us from Calvary. It is true that the Cross is no longer considered a potent symbol of Western identity. It has largely disappeared from our schools, hospitals, and civic institutions. Despite this, Christ’s great sacrifice still speaks to us of humanity’s profound longing for redemption.
Somewhere, in the depths of the human heart, we know that, to quote the Lord, “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” We know that Christ did not die simply to give us an example of how to sacrifice for one another, however central to the Christian life that notion may be. Neither did he willingly go to the Cross because he sought to identify with victims of oppression and suffering. He willingly accepted, what St. Paul calls, the ‘curse’ of the Cross in order to redeem humanity from its slavery to sin, greed, and selfishness. That we now accept these spiritual defects as normal to our condition, indicates why many still yearn for the saving power of the Cross. For there is nothing normal about a culture that glorifies the ego, sexualises children, and promotes narcissism and hedonism as the fulfilment of human existence. The redemptive power of the Cross is the antidote to a society saturated in sinful pleasures, which is why this redemptive power endures despite the successes of those intent on replacing it with a golden calf.
I have witnessed the Cross heal pain, trauma, and despair. I have seen it set people free from addiction and all manner of chronic conditions. Therefore, I was astonished when my eldest son recently told me that he heard two Dominican friars ask an evangelist what they ought “to do about the Cross.” How, they inquired, “can we evangelise young people who associate the Cross with nothing but gore and violence?” Sadly, this reveals more about the lamentable state of seminary formation than anything else. However, it does suggest that the true meaning of the Cross must be continually made clear, especially in an age in which people cannot comprehend sacrifice and so easily take offence.
The Cross is offensive. St. Paul says as much in his letter to the Galatians: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the Cross has been removed.” In other words, if salvation can be earned through works of the law, or through our own efforts, then the sacrifice on Calvary was for nothing. The Cross offends those who believe they can redeem themselves, or who think that fallen humanity can free itself from bondage by means of its own ingenuity. Paul explains:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness came through the law, then Christ died in vain.
The principal revelation of the Pauline epistles is that, through the Cross, we have been removed from a “kingdom of darkness” to one of light. Our nature has been transformed to the point where we have become “a new creation.” What Christ nailed to the Cross was our fallen nature, thus reconciling us to God. He did so out of love and in order that, through grace or “unmerited favour,” we might be made righteous. If salvation were attainable under the law—or by our own strength—Christ’s death would have been unnecessary. However, the sad history of humanity demonstrates that we are incapable of saving ourselves. To accept the Cross, therefore, is to acknowledge that we are fallen, that we cannot redeem ourselves, and that we need a saviour who will crucify the “old self” and raise up a “new creation.” Christ is that saviour, and all of us who have been baptised into him “were baptised into his death” so “we too might walk in newness of life.”
The Cross is offensive, not because it disturbs the sensitivities of millennials, but because it either defies the belief that we don’t require redemption, or that the latest self-help manifesto will suffice for the salvation of the ego. For two millennia, it has stood before us as a radical expression of love and liberation. John the Apostle tells us that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.” He gave him up so that we might be set free, or as Paul puts it: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
When, therefore, we gaze at the Cross, we ought to see Christ and our old selves, for, as Paul declares:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Therefore, what Christ nails to the Cross is our old fallen nature. We who were bound and captive to ourselves, and who were dead in our trespasses, “God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the Cross.”
Such is the life-transforming theology of the Cross, and it is tragic that it has so often been misrepresented and misunderstood. That those two Dominican priests could not counter such misunderstanding reveals not only a theological deficit at the heart of society, but also a failure by the Church to impart its own central message (even to its own ministers, let alone the lay faithful). The Church is not there to adapt the Gospel to climate ideology or to campaign for social justice. Its primary purpose is to offer salvation to a broken and desperate world—a world in which people continually anaesthetize themselves to their own alienation through the counterfeit salve of addictive behaviour.
Indeed, the word ‘salvation’ derives from the Greek soteria, meaning ‘rescued, saved, and delivered.’ As Hegel understood, when people are in bondage to hedonism, they believe they are free. That is because, for them, freedom equals fulfilling each desire. What the hedonist does not realise, however, is that being compelled to satisfy desire is not liberty but subjugation. The true mark of freedom is the capacity to deny desire in favour of responding to the needs of others. Only in that way can we be rescued, saved, and delivered from ourselves.
In words that resound across the ages, Christ explained:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his self?
The great paradox of the Christian revelation is that true freedom is found in self-loss, and yet our primary impulse remains that of gaining the whole world.
The children of Cyberia sit before their screens as masters and possessors of all they survey. They demand instant gratification of every instinct and cannot comprehend any delay. The rights and entitlements of the individual are sacrosanct in a world where altruism has been eclipsed by egotism. We have it all but profit little because when something frustrates desire, or opposes our rights, we realise the sad cost of gaining the world at the expense of self. The plagues of fear, loneliness, despair, and insecurity are running rampant through a generation that cannot cope when their world is undermined by the harsh requirements of reality.
Self-denial is not popular in this era of egocentrism. However, the mystery of the Cross teaches us that bondage can only be broken when, as Paul puts it, we take off the old and put on the new self. Putting on the new self, which “is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator,” means crucifying “what is earthly in you.” It means cultivating “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” Above all, it means “putting on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Moreover, this transformation in Christ means prioritising responsibility above rights, altruism above self-interest, and light above darkness. It means, as Paul insists, to do “all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights of the world.”
The Cross delivers us from the burden of self-centeredness. It invites us to be in the world but not of it. Pseudo-psychology will condemn this as ‘repression,’ and yet the alternative is that form of bondage and alienation described so accurately by Hegel. If Christ and his cross are the antidote to the despair of the age, it is because, through the challenge of self-denial, we learn to value genuine liberty, perfect love, and lasting peace. As Christ tells us in the Gospel of John: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The shackles of sin, selfishness, and self-obsession, fall away as soon as we accept, through faith, that Christ nailed them to the tree. That is why Paul can proudly proclaim: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and refuse to submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
In other words, once we realise that, through the Cross, we have peace with God, we should never again succumb to enslavement, alienation, or estrangement. For, as Paul writes, if “one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
As darkness descended over Calvary, the mournful mother stood there weeping; as the Stabat Mater begins: “at the Cross her station keeping.” “It is finished,” her son said, before bowing his head and giving up his spirit. He had come to set the captives free, and now they were free indeed. The old had gone; the new had come. The glory of the Cross is that “the dwelling place of God is with man.” He has wiped away every tear, “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have all passed away.”
That is what the world is desperately yearning for, which is why people still flock to their churches to kneel down and kiss the Cross on Good Friday. Most may not fully understand why they are there, but they know that Christ did not give his life so that we would remain the same. He gave his life so that, having crucified the old self, the burden of bondage would be lifted forever.
“It is finished”: now is the day of salvation. This is the magnificent message of the Cross—one that is, and always has been, fallen humanity’s greatest hope.
Mark Dooley is an Irish philosopher, author and journalist. He is the former John Henry Newman Scholar in theology at University College Dublin, and is a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative magazine. His latest book, Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries and Criticism, is published by Bloomsbury.