Why Jesus Changes Everything: A Meditation on the Cross

The currently fashionable world of “spirituality”—with its dream catchers and its drugstore, faux Buddhist therapeutics—knows nothing of the real Jesus.

(James Coleman/Unsplash.com)

When I was still a university professor, I often asked my students to play an intellectual “what if” game. I asked them to imagine what our world would be like if Jesus Christ had never existed and, therefore, Christianity had never come into being.

I did this to subvert the hostility of so many of them toward the “institutional Church” owing to centuries of misconduct and deep sinfulness by her various members. The honest, non-ideological students had to admit that a world in which the values of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire reigned supreme would have been far, far worse than the civilization formed by the Christian Church. You can disagree with that assessment, of course, but you would be wrong to do so. I have noticed, on this topic, that those who indulge the puerile intellectual habits of folks such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens never bother to notice that much of the force of their facile critique of Christianity is a moral one, centering on the numerous ways they claim that the Christian Church has been morally bestial—yet without offering any justification for this moral vision from within the ideological logistics of their atheism. In many ways I think their moral instincts are sound, and their criticisms of the Church—though exaggerated and often ignorant of the real historical record—are at least loosely grounded in the sad reality of the sins of Christians.

Nevertheless, what they fail to notice is that the very moral verities they are invoking, which they imagine to be nothing more than the “common sense” morality provided by secular reason, are in reality Christian in inspiration and origin.

And if that is true, and it most certainly is, then what remains is the task of identifying what the specific Christian contribution was and is. In other words, what was the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world, and how did it change our view of who God is? That Jesus preached the advent of a new “Kingdom of grace” cannot be reasonably doubted. But what are the rules of citizenship he established for admittance into this Kingdom? And how does living in this Kingdom put us at odds with the “ruler of this world”?

These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem quite reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system”, realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a Tiger you really no longer have a Tiger. The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand syllogisms or ten thousand Deepak Chopras. I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee shop Christ allows us to both call ourselves “Christians” and to then kill people, whether that be in Imperial wars or in our various “clinics”. And the Christ of the clinics and the Christ of the drone wars is a result of the domestication of Jesus through a cultural and political reduction. Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a latte and NPR, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction”.

Thus, in order to resist this reduction of Jesus to either a political (in the narrow sense of that word) or a cultural prop, the Gospels do not obsess over conceptual clarity in the sense of creating a neat system of ideas that read like a Power Point bullet list during a TED talk. And thank God they don’t since there is nothing so boring and ridiculously pompous as a TED talk. (Side note: I was once asked to give a TED talk but did not know what it was. I thought, “Who the hell is Ted, and why should I talk to him?”) Nor do the Gospels give us ecclesiological, organizational, flow charts, (which are inherently and irreducibly demonic, the Wormwood bitterness that makes everything German), and what they give us instead are suggestive references to a “Rock” and some kind of “keys” that are to be used in the name of a God renamed in a mysterious tripartite formula lacking in even the most rudimentary theological explanation.

This is not, however, an argument against the later formulation of doctrines and offices in the Church, since Jesus was most certainly not an antinomian or an anti-institutional preacher of an esoteric Gnosticism, no matter what today’s sophisticated anti-Semites say. The latent anti-Semitism that lurks beneath this view of Jesus as a kind of anti-Jewish Jew, and as a purveyor of cracker-barrel spiritualism, is as old as Marcion and as fresh as “The View”. To be sure, as I say above, Jesus cannot be reductively domesticated in neat theological systems. But that isn’t because he was opposed to theology. It was because HE IS the theology. Jesus doesn’t iconoclastically “burst categories”. He IS THE category. And so no, he wasn’t a first century Oprah Winfrey and he never combined empty, boutique-shop sophistry with free donkey-cart giveaways.

The currently fashionable world of “spirituality”—with its dream catchers and its drugstore, faux Buddhist therapeutics—knows nothing of the real Jesus. Indeed, these currently fashionable parlor room curiosities are merely the Ivy League version of the prosperity Gospel, complete with promises of body detoxification through the drinking of grotesque green liquids of unknown provenance. Jesus+Essential oils = A brownstone in Park Slope.

Enough of such nonsense. When it comes to the Gospels we see instead a Jesus of immense solidity, and when we approach him we run up hard against a wall that at first seems impenetrable to our ersatz spirituality and our desiccated rationality. By contrast, the piercing and lacerating image that the Gospels present is precisely that—an image—and its logic (its “truth”) is embedded in the dramatic aesthetic of a humiliated, crucified man who descends into the silent solidarity of the dead. And the Gospels make clear that this descent into the dissolute world of decay, into the moldering stench of Satan’s sting, was the very condition for the glory that follows. The crucifixion and the descent into death were not “mere preliminaries”, or a forensic theological mandate that just had to be endured, stoically, in order to fulfill some bestial bloodlust on God’s part before he then rewarded Jesus with the Golden Ticket. Such is the view of entire benighted wings of the Christian household who then go on to preach that we don’t have to endure the Cross because Jesus did it for us. We now just get to kick back, open a bag of pork rinds, and enjoy the endless Disney World of our resurrection life. This, despite the fact that Jesus himself explicitly tells us that we too will need to take up our cross in order to follow him.

No, the Cross of Christ is no mere preliminary. It is no mere juridical act of appeasement followed by judicial exoneration and the lavishing of parting gifts. It is in truth the Revelation of God’s deepest nature, the expression in human, worldly, time-bound form of the Eternal One. But what can it possibly mean that God’s very inner life is best exposited in this brutalized way?

Jesus said “He who sees me sees the Father”. To “see” Jesus, according to the Gospels, is to look at the Cross. Not exclusively (since Resurrection is part of this event too), but focally, centrally. It is to view the Resurrection in and through the Crucifixion, which is why the Resurrected Christ is forever the “Lamb who was slain” and whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his grotesque torture. The Cross reveals to us that God, as love, is nothing more than pure gift. He is giving as such. He is descent and self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of the other as such. This is the essence of what the “Trinity” is and is thus also the essence of that divine life within us and of our nature’s truest end. He doesn’t “possess” these attributes as qualities like you and I possess this or that virtue. He IS those attributes.

Christ reveals God; Christ is God; and Christ is eternally “marked” by his crucifixion. So, too, must we be so marked. This is the criterion for entrance into the Kingdom that I mentioned at the start. This is the meaning of the Easter season. We are not, as the Enneagram and Pottery Barn Chalice crowd inform us, “resurrection people”. If we are to be resurrected it is into this Kingdom, the Kingdom of “cross and resurrection”, and not into a Kingdom marked through and through by the sign of bourgeois comfort. We are not “saved” just because we gave some vague, and nominal assent to a theological proposition, which we then label as “faith”. If we are to be resurrected at all it will be as crucified and resurrected. There is no other path. And it is precisely the counter-mark of the Antichrist to imagine that there is. Joel Osteen and Paula White have our President’s ear. But they reject the way of the Cross and embrace the way of Mammon. They both have perfect teeth—and they are antichrists.

This is why I am a Catholic Worker. And it is the only reason for being a Catholic Worker. To live as closely as we can the Sermon on the Mount, which is, paradoxically, only illuminated by the shadow cast by the Cross. This was the constant message of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. We must not so spiritualize the Sermon on the Mount that its clear mandate for Christians to abandon the path of Mammon, the path of acquisition, the path of violence, is distanced from us by a series of thorned hedgerows, as we tell ourselves that such “perfection” is for the monks alone. The rest of us, we are told, have to live in the “real world” where none of this idealistic stuff applies.

But we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle. I am very guilty of this. Very. Guilty. But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but, as I see in my own life, the appalling opposite: narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where I convince myself that if I can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means I am sacrificing. Or, at the least, to convince myself that if I keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe I will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Like Peter Sellers in Being There: I like to watch. I approach life as a spectator, which is to say I approach God as a spectator, which is to say, I do not approach God at all.

The Cross is never easy. It is repulsive and ugly, a symbol of the worst kind of torture, injustice, and brutality. And it is the central symbol of our faith. It is our only path to the resurrection and the Kingdom. That gate and that path gets narrower for me every day. Narrower in the sense that I can’t seem to stay on it, or even on some days, find it. How hard it is to truly die to self, to divest ourselves of all of our caterwauling idolatries, and to stop our pretentious posturing as we seek to manipulate and bend others to suit our needs. We are like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s tale, clinging to that rotten onion and preferring it to the glories of Heaven. We think that the “old man” in us is like snakeskin that we can shed, “and I will someday, just let me get through this….” But then we discover that we really do prefer the rotten onion.

It is hard to die. But that is why the new Kingdom of Christ’s grace begins with the death of God on the Cross. “One of the Trinity has died”—so an ancient, anti-Nestorian line has it. It flirts with heresy, but only trivially so. In reality, the gravamen of its insight should make us all weep for joy as we near the end of this Easter season.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, pray for us.

+Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.


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About Larry Chapp 6 Articles
Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania.

12 Comments

  1. “Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are”, my late father used to say as one of his very many, popular wisdom sayings and proverbs, and which the passing of time has proven them to be so very true. Other people would say: “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”, others would say, “Tell me who you admire and I’ll tell you who you REALLY are”.

    Mr. Larry Chapp finishes by saying: “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, pray for us. +Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us”. What if I ever write a very heart moving, very touching, Cross-centered, JESUS-centered article here at CWR and finish it by saying: “Joel Osteen and Paula White, pray for us. Etc, etc…” That would ABSOLUTELY nullify my whole very moving, very orthodox “Catholic” article. Why did I choose two still-living individuals who also happen to be Protestant? Because the comparison is still very valid and very fair. The spirit is the very same. Read on.

    This article “sounds right” and “feels right”, BUT, is it ACTUALLY right? Is it? Prosperity Gospel peddler Pastor Joel Osteen can sometimes say some of the most true, new, revealing, refreshing, empowering, deepest spiritual things I have ever heard anywhere (that’s how I fell for the fraud way back when). Yeah, I did say it and I went there. BUT, and there’s a very big BUT about this, the heart behind those words IS NOT TRUE TO JESUS!!

    There’s plenty of videos and other evidence in YouTube and everywhere where Osteen denies JESUS as the only way to Salvation, etc., etc. YET, he can say some hyper-spiritual things that strongly move all his fanatics to dish out the cash by the wheelbarrow-full. Did you know that this Prosperity Gospel is now popular in South America, Africa, etc.? Satan’s target includes the money BUT the REAL target is very precious human souls that God calls to Himself.

    Right as a PARALLEL of this horror, I have seen a big increase in “reputable” Catholic Lay authors, Clergy, etc. in blogs and everywhere who can deeply move people’s hearts, say some very deep spiritual things, sound more orthodox and Catholic than Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Theresa of Avila, but their hearts are NOT TRUE TO GOD! Just check who they walk with, have friends with and WHO and WHAT they REALLY admire!

    That’s part of the WORKS that JESUS warns us about in relation to false prophets here: Matthew 7:15-20. If Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin are “saints” whose intercession we must seek, then I am the very Holy Spirit incarnate, given that at least I am TRULY faithful to JESUS and not just impressively and artfully pretending to be. For those confused, both sides on the hyperbole I just used are patently false, which is why I used it. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, (Matthew 26:41). Our flesh is in lustful, delirious love with artful disguises, gliterring falsehoods and sentiment-stirring, super-subtle impostors, which is why you must be VERY SMART asking for God’s Wisdom in order to crucify our flesh as we should to find the TRUE God. BEWARE!!

    • Methinks that we doth strainest too much at gnats upon which to expandest our own sometimes tangential epistles! Read on.

      In your comment we find a gratuitous parallel between (Professor Chapp’s) eight-word (!) invocation of Day/Maurin and (your) Osteen/White, followed by your: “Why did I choose two still-living individuals who also happen to be Protestant? Because the comparison is still very valid and very fair. The spirit is the very same. Read on.”

      And yet, IS it [the spirit] the very same?

      Conditionally baptized as a Catholic in her early years (1927) and now, on balance, Day is being considered for canonization (a cause permitted by St. Pope John Paul II) despite her history of very complicated, compromised and contradictory causes and connections. DID SHE FINISH WELL? Like St. Augustine, perhaps? From her later memoirs:

      “I had a conversation with John Spivak, the Communist writer, a few years ago, and he said to me, ‘How can you believe? How can you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the Virgin birth, in the Resurrection?’ I could only say that I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted Her authority with my whole heart. At the same time I want to point out to you that we are taught to pray for final perseverance. We are taught that faith is a gift, and sometimes I wonder why some have it and some do not. I feel my own unworthiness and can never be grateful enough to God for His gift of faith.”

      And at her (and now Chapp’s) Catholic Worker farm in New York, the leftist Fr. Daniel Berrigan was about to celebrate Mass vested only in a stole. Day insisted that he put on the proper vestments. When he complained about the law regarding liturgical garb, Day responded, “On this farm, we obey the laws of the Church,” which he then did.

      • Thank you for this. Dorothy and Peter were both very faithful to the Church. Indeed, their faithfulness to the Church far exceeded that of most Catholic Workers, then and today. It is true that they are not yet saints. But the Church does allow us to pray for the intercession of those not yet officially canonized. In fact, it is one of the signs the Church looks for in the official investigations: is there a spontaneous devotion to this individual within the Church?

    • The root of your critique is that you clearly think Day and Maurin are false prophets. You further think that in invoking them as intercessors I am showing my true colors as a sketchy Catholic. Therefore, your post would have been more effective had it specified why you disagree with my use of Day and Maurin as role models in the faith. What, specifically, do you not like about them? Had you taken that approach we could have had an interesting and fruitful conversation. Because I am well aware that many Catholics do not like Day and Maurin, and I talk to such people, civilly, all the time. Sadly, you did not take that approach so there really is no substance to your post with which to engage. Just a series of vague warnings held together by a daisy-chain of disparate Scripture quotes.

  2. “How hard it is to truly die to self, to divest ourselves of all of our caterwauling idolatries, and to stop our pretentious posturing as we seek to manipulate and bend others to suit our needs.”

    Ouch.

    I very much appreciate Dr. Chapp crafting this entire article for me personally, as I totally and desperately needed it.

    What’s frustrating is the realization that even that admission is itself narcissistic.

    Can this pestilential fallen human nature never be conquered?

    • Mr. brineyman, that quote from the article that you mention at the beginning of your comment is central to its narcissim and its “Catholic” push toward artfully disguised socialism, etc. Yes, the article mentions JESUS, the Cross, etc. but the emphasis is definitely narcissistic and your reaction and your feeeling of being trapped in a narcissitic, vicious-cycle LOOP is very common to too many Catholics (“Catholics always confess the same sins”, etc.) under today’s demonic, impostors’ siege.

      Many “reputable” people whose hearts are not true to Jesus want to keep us there and use traditional Catholic theology for THEIR devious purposes not God’s. As a clarifying example, when you compare the very fiery Sermons of the Cure de Ars (check the books on them, expensive but WORTHY), they center you on JESUS even as he goes ruthless, full-tiger, full Navy Seals on mine, your and our sins.

      On the other side, the impostoring Apostles of Deception will use the same Catholic theology to inject a permanent, eternal feeling of guilt and shame in you so you become a useful tool for their infiltration and sabotage, while being a fanatic promoter of socialism, radical environmentalism, homosexuality, compromise, etc., etc. in the false gospel of Insane Sentimental New Age Homosexual Modernism.

      The solution to my, your and our quandary is to fix our eyes on JESUS, so that every fall, misery and failure makes us fall more intensely FORWARD to HIM and his TRUTH instead of BACKWARDS toward the CORRUPT WORLD SYSTEM and their LIES. And if you fail even at doing this, you STILL focus on JESUS as your God and Savior and not on my/your/our desperate failings and abject miseries.

      As many Saints point out, you may fail and fail and fail, but if you are determined, full of the holy stubbornness of seeking JESUS day by day by day, moment by moment by moment, God will turn trade His Beauty for your ashes when you least expect it (Isaiah 61:2-3 – read that quote daily). This process may be repeated again several times or many, but like in a spiral that spirals UP instead of down, you may revisit old junky things but you are now HIGHER. When you focus ultra-hard on yourself, your sins, impostors, worldly ideas, etc. instead of JESUS, you get the desperation spiral where old junky things are also revisited but you go down ever lower into desperation and discouragement. Only two choices, spiral up or spiral down, your choice UP is JESUS!

      Strive toward holiness like it all depended on you but leave the RESULTS, whether they are good, desperately pathetic or totally failed as they may appear, into JESUS Loving Hands! He’ll raise you UP, while you are busy with the Work of being One with His Sacred Infinitely Loving Heart! The scales of sin will fall off as you push forward to JESUS, just like the Spartans did at Thermopylae, desperation be darned. The Insane Fantasy Peddlers will not stand a chance with you!!

    • Our nature can be conquered. Christ is always already victorious. But our successes in that regard in this life will be only partial. We await the Revelation of the full glory God has in store for us.

  3. Thank you for this complex article, which I found a little hard to follow. I am especially intrigued by the statement “we are not a resurrection people” since I seem to recall “we are a resurrection people” was proudly proclaimed very recently in a very everyday source, our parish bulletin (before the Covid shutdown) maybe. The Cross is much more challenging and mysterious to think about. The quarrel over Dorothy Day in the comments board is interesting too. I know very little about her, but her promotion seems to me artificial precisely because that’s all I know of her, naturally — that she’s being promoted. Thanks again for a fine piece.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Why Jesus Changes Everything: A Meditation on the Cross - Catholic Mass Search
  2. Some reading material, 27.05.20 – RC Largs and Millport

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