This Sunday’s Passion reading places us squarely at the foot of the cross by the time we come to the middle of our liturgy. It’s an annual struggle for me as a preacher to find a way to make sense of what is being read to a group of people who may be just joining us mid-story.
That the cross is a central part of the story of Jesus, and a key feature of the Triduum can’t be argued. Mark’s Gospel has been described as an extended introduction to the Passion. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was clearly the most important part of the Early Church’s proclamation of the Gospel – just read any of the early sermons of the Apostles or the first Christian writers and you’ll see the way the keep coming back to it.
But for many people today the cross and Christ’s death is sort of an odd thing that gets between them and the Jesus they’re following. I recently had the opportunity to read a number of student essays that tried to share the gospel in a couple of sentences. Most of them focused on the idea of Jesus as God’s exemplary human; who’s life showed us what each of us were capable of being. (I’m told by someone smarter than I am that this is an idea that was first fully expressed in the writings of Peter Abelard.) But none of them talked about the cross, and none of them mentioned the word atonement.
That’s probably because the idea of the atonement has been put aside lately in modern thinking; mostly because the simple version of substitutionary atonement just doesn’t make sense to modern ears. But it’s a mistake to imagine that there’s only one way to look at the cross, and it’s historically inaccurate to imagine the Church has always held to the same explanation. Because it isn’t and it hasn’t. There’s multiple ways of understanding the death of Christ. And Palm Sunday is a chance perhaps to talk about them.
Tony Jones has written what is an effectively a quick start guide to the main views of the Atonement. He starts off by asking the question, “If the cross is the answer, what’s the question it’s answering?”
“You’d think that this is among the most central of all Christian doctrines to work out. And, indeed, much ink has been spilled, and many pixels typed, regarding this doctrine, called the “atonement” by theologians. But it’s also worth noting that never in the 2,000-year history of the church has one’s take on the atonement been a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy. Never was it the subject of an ecumenical council, nor was it ever enshrined in an early church creed.
That historical reality affords us some latitude to consider the major ways that Christians have understood the atonement over the years, and to ponder some minority opinions as well. In each, the crucifixion is the solution. Where they differ is the problem. In other words, what is the problem that the crucifixion solves?”
He lists the major historical views of the Atonement, the patristic understanding, the medieval understanding, and some of the more recent ones as well and goes on to sketch out what they claim the question is. It’s a shame he doesn’t point out the difference between the medieval understanding and the reformation ones. And it’s a shame he labels some of the more modern understandings – like the Girardian one that I find so helpful as “minority views”. But I give him a ton of credit for what he does do…
The key take away for me is that he reminds us that there is no agreement about what the cross means. Atonement is not a part of the creed, it’s never been a required belief, and that means that Christians have always been free to speculate on their own about what Jesus’ death means for them. The traditional answers might be helpful, but honestly, for lots of people today they aren’t. But there are lots of answers, and this Holy Week might be a time to meditate on them to see what makes sense for you.
If you want to do something interesting this Holy Week – go and see “The Hunger Games.” Watch it as an attempt to pose the question that the cross answers. Or try re-reading any of the great Tragedies; how are they posing the question that the cross is answering?
But whatever you do, at least spend some time asking yourself this Holy Week, the same question I pose in our title. “Why did Jesus have to die?” Because any attempt to explain what Jesus means without answering that question is probably going to be only partially right.