by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Meaning of Christ's Suffering

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That's a stretch, though. Would Christians really have misunderstood their salvation for a thousand years? Did the people Paul wrote his letters to have no idea what he was talking about? Did the early martyrs die without understanding the Cross that saved them? Why would the Holy Spirit permit such a thing, if he was sent to lead them into all truth? Is the "plain meaning of Scripture" so obscure that it couldn't be discerned for a thousand years, and then only by someone from a culture utterly different from that of its authors?

Before Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is seen as located within us. We are infected by Death as a result of Adam's fall. This infection will cause us be to spiritually sick and to commit sin, both voluntarily and as a result of the Devil's deceptions. Christ offers to rescue us in accord with the Father's will, like the young police officer above. In this action, God the Father and the Son are united: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself."

That's the "before" snapshot. With Anselm, the problem salvation addresses is between us and God (we have a debt we can't pay). After Anselm it is even sometimes formulated as within God (His wrath won't be quenched until the debt is paid). This theory loses the unity of will between the Father and Son; it can appear that the Son has to overcome the Father's resistance. It loses the emphasis on the reality that the sickness is within us, and we need to be healed; it can appear that a legal acquittal is sufficient and a transformed life merely a nice after-thought.

Some rebelled against the Anselmian formulation and claimed that it was too legalistic, too ethically superficial, too "Old Testament." They proposed instead that Christ's sufferings are meant to move us by example, so that we will turn and be reconciled with God. (In response to a similar proposition many centuries earlier Augustine had harrumphed that, if an example is all we needed, we didn't need Christ; the human condition would have been cleared up with Abel.)

In all these varied "after" snapshots, however, the wounds and suffering are the major point. It is the pain of the Passion that saves us, whether objectively (by paying a debt) or subjectively (by moving our hearts). From Julian of Norwich's meditations on the Crown of Thorns, to "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded," to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a single devotional thread.

This is a strand that has produced powerfully affecting works of art and moved and inspired Christians for centuries. The Crucifixion was, in fact, bloody and brutal. Gibson is on good historical ground in wishing to depict it in this way—and when he prayerfully reads the Gospels, no doubt these are the pictures that appear in his mind.

But they are not, actually, there. The writers of the Gospels chose to describe Jesus' Passion a different way. Instead of evoking empathy they invite us to grateful, respectful awe, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of his suffering.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author most recently of The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete).

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