The power of the Cross

George Weigel

Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) – a theologian who came to prominence in the Victorian Age – can help us check the Church’s spiritual pulse in the post-modern twenty-first century, thanks to his prescient sense of the deep cultural currents shaping (and warping) Western civilization. Thus on August 26, 1832, Newman preached a sermon, “The Religion of the Day,” that bears reflection during Holy Week 2017:

“What is Satan’s device in this day?…What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel – its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth…[Those] fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound…are explained away. Every thing is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy….”

Judging from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the temptation to reduce Christianity to a comfortable life-style option has been around a long time. Thus Paul insists that he did not come to Corinth to preach “with eloquent wisdom” – human cleverness; no, he came with a message inconceivable to sophisticated (or even not-so-sophisticated) ancients: “Christ crucified,” in whose Cross is found “the power of God” [1 Cor. 17, 20]. Eighteen hundred years later, Newman found the perennial temptation to empty the Cross of its power in the cozy cultural religiosity of his time. H. Richard Niebuhr, closer to our day, saw the same corrosive thing when he pilloried the liberal Protestantism that offered “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Against these “idols of the Truth,” this Christian happy-talk, the Cross stands in stark relief.

Attractive crucifixes in our churches and homes should not blind us to the fact that death by Roman crucifixion was unspeakably awful: a naked, flagellated, and bleeding body, nailed to rough wood so that the victim was forced to intensify his agony by pushing himself up on nailed feet in order to breathe. Death could take many hours, even days; finally, the crucified one’s continually weakened and pain-wracked body turned on the victim and asphyxiated him. This was the death meted out to the wretched of the earth. It was not a pretty business, nor was it meant to be. It was a hideous death meant for slaves, a warning of the dangers of challenging Roman power.

Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge concludes her reflections on the awfulness of the crucifixion with these challenging thoughts, which ask us to understand the Cross in light of the horrors that human beings, under the power of Satan, have perpetrated in history:

“Forgiveness is not enough. Belief in redemption is not enough. Wishful thinking about the intrinsic goodness of every human being is not enough. Inclusion is not a sufficiently inclusive message, nor does it deliver real justice. Only a Power independent of this world can overcome the grip of the Enemy of God’s purposes for his creation. [Thus] Jesus Christ…offered himself to be the condemned and rejected Righteous One…At the historical time and place of his inhuman and godless crucifixion, all the demonic Powers loosed in the world convened in Jerusalem and unleashed their forces upon the incarnate Son of God…”

And the Son, through the power of God, won the victory. For the righteousness of God the Father vindicated the Son’s cruciform obedience in the Resurrection, restoring creation to its right order and inaugurating the Kingdom of God, proclaimed by the Church called into being by the experience of the Risen One and empowered by the Holy Spirit. So the friends of the risen Lord Jesus can say, with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal. 2.20].

On Good Friday, many of us will sing of the Cross, in the words of the old spiritual, “Sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble….”

It should.

Featured photo by Aaron Lambert | Denver Catholic

COMING UP: A bishop of consequence

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When I first met Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., more than twenty years ago, I was struck by his boyish demeanor, his exquisite courtesy, and his rock-solid faith. Then the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, a diocese that serves several reservations, Chaput was obviously proud of his Potawatomi heritage without wearing his roots, so to speak, on his sleeve. Moreover, his striking modesty and personal gentleness exemplified the Franciscan vocation he had embraced. Here, I thought, is a real pastor, living out the meaning of his episcopal motto, “As Christ loved the Church.”

He was also a lot of fun. It was no easy business to return service in the rapid-fire repartee led by our host that night, then-Msgr. Timothy Dolan. But Chaput played the rhetorical baseline like a pro.

A few years after we met, he was named archbishop of Denver. And for the next fourteen years, I watched in admiration as Archbishop Chaput led what was, in many people’s judgment, the premier New Evangelization diocese in the country. He was always the bottom line. But he governed the archdiocese in a genuinely collegial manner, which is one reason he drew many highly talented lay collaborators to Denver. No one who knew him doubted that he would have happily spent the rest of his life in the Mile High City.

In 2011, however, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was in grave trouble, and Archbishop Chaput accepted the unenviable task of fixing what had become a serious mess, financially and otherwise. To agree to that transfer was an act of fidelity and courage by a man who loved his current job and had zero interest in what might once have been thought a “promotion.” Yet when Pope Benedict asked him to do it, Chaput agreed. I thought then, and think now, that perhaps no other bishop in the country could have turned the Philadelphia situation around as Archbishop Chaput did. Pope Francis’s highly successful visit to Philly in 2015 was all to Chaput’s credit – although, typically, he publicly shared the credit with others.

Immediately after the papal visit, Chaput, who had been elected by his American brother bishops to Synod-2015, spent almost a month in Rome, where his qualities were quickly recognized by the world episcopate. After hearing him and watching his work as one of the Synod discussion-groups’ secretaries, Archbishop Chaput drew the largest vote to the Synod General Council among the elected North American Synod delegates, in an open ballot that some wags refer to as the “Iowa caucuses.” It was a striking compliment.

Archbishop Chaput has just published his third book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (Henry Holt). Like any sensible person, Chaput knows that the United States is living through a season of profound moral and cultural turbulence – turbulence that threatens to unravel the American democratic experiment. Yet for all his penetrating analysis of how the United States came to its present season of discontent, Strangers in a Strange Land is, finally, a hopeful book: a point that eluded reviewers whose familiarity with the actual text seems rather slight. Thus the archbishop closes on this note:

“The Word of God testifies to the goodness of creation, the gift that is life, and the glory of the human person. With this glory comes a duty. We are born for the City of God. The road home leads through the City of Man. So we are strangers in a strange land, yes.

“But what we do here makes all the difference.”

For years, I was angered by the vicious caricature of Archbishop Charles Chaput as a dour, stridently orthodox, rigid culture-warrior: a calumny that dominates certain circles of portside Catholic commentary, here and elsewhere. But I’m no longer angry at the poor souls who continue to treat Archbishop Chaput as an ideological punching bag or dismiss him as a pre-Pope Francis bishop. Rather, I feel sorry for them. If Charles Chaput does not embody the spiritual and pastoral qualities the Pope says he values in bishops, no one does. Those who continue to miss that truth, here and elsewhere, are to be pitied for having failed to appreciate an admirable human being, a man of God, and a great churchman.

Photo by Javier de la Flor | CNA