The redeeming Cross: at the centre of Christian faith

The redeeming Cross: at the centre of Christian faith

Cardinal George Pell

When Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ premiered in Sydney two years ago, it was attacked in advance as anti-Semitic (often by those who had seen no preview); then as showing too much violence - and violent it was, at excruciating length, especially during the crucifixion.

Secularists feared that it would be effective Christian teaching (with all its imperfections, I believe it was), while Catholic radicals feared it would give a boost to traditional understandings of redemption, which they wish to destroy. For them too the redeeming cross is an anachronism, an embarrassing reminder of what they have jettisoned.

So a redemptive understanding of suffering is not only a radical point of difference between us and neo-paganism, but it is a sore point of difference, very deep and important in all the Christian communities and even our own Catholic Church. For pagans old and new, suffering is a brute fact, with no redemptive meaning. They cannot offer it up.

In some ways we have moved even beyond Richard Niebuhr's verdict on "The Kingdom of God in America" - We want a God without wrath/who took a man without sin/into a kingdom without justice/through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross - because the United States still remains one of the most religious societies in history; far more religious than Australia and most of Europe.

A recent work of Pope Benedict's called Truth and Tolerance explains something of this new concept where the renunciation of the claim to truth is seen as a fundamental condition for peace.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger quoted an Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who claimed that Moses introduced the notion of truth into religion, rejecting false gods. Hitherto religions had been pure or impure, sacred or profane; people could have a number of religious enthusiasms. But Moses' destruction of the Golden Calf set an "unfortunate" precedent for monotheistic intolerance.

The "secular" task today is to return to ancient Egypt, to again remove the distinction between God and the world, a return to pantheism, a vague nature worship.

With this reversion there would be no more need for the notions of sin and redemption. Sin only came into the world with Moses according to this theory.

If there is no personal God there is no possibility of judgement after death and therefore no need for godly forgiveness, no possibility of reward or punishment.

We know Karl Marx's claim that religion was the opium of the people, numbing them and taking them away from the class struggle for justice. In fact the Polish poet Milosz is closer to the mark: the opium of the people today is the mistaken belief they will not be judged after death.

Evil is real, evil committed by persons. Last year, my group of World Youth Day pilgrims visited Auschwitz en route to Cologne. We saw again that evil is real and the scales of justice often do not balance in this life. We need a just God to balance the scales in the next life, with the life, sufferings and death of His own Divine Son eliminating or balancing the sins of the saved.

There are many dimensions to Christ's redeeming activity; indeed a diversity of orthodox emphases as well as the radicals' rejection. But a Christian can only start from the Scriptural evidence.

In Mark's Gospel it is made clear that the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45). The Eucharistic words of institution (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-26) emphasise that Jesus' body is given and blood shed for the remission of our sins, and St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews emphasises that Christ is both priest and sacrifice, spilling his own blood and thus securing our eternal redemption (Heb 9:12).

Peter speaks of Christ's suffering as an example for us to follow (1P 2:19), while Paul in his letter to the Colossians speaks of the cosmic and eternal consequences of Christ's death and resurrection over principalities and powers (Col 1:16).

Many Christians today pass over Jesus' violent death quickly. In Australia we have more at our Christmas Masses than at Easter. So too outsiders and even Catholics, who believe in a one dimensional, kind and tolerant Jesus, are disconcerted when reminded that Jesus was killed for his teaching and activities and uneasy about a crucifixion Christianity.

But Jesus' suffering is a wonderful help to us in our suffering. Not only do we have his example, but we know that he, the Son of God, understands what great suffering is: God is not immune to human suffering.

It is a great consolation too to know that we can offer our sufferings, large or small, to Christ for a good purpose.

Redemption will stand us in good stead at the Last Judgement. Consider the promise of Our Lord to the good thief on the cross.

Let me conclude with the last three verses of the Dies Irae:

Prepare me a place among the sheep,
and keep me from the goats
standing at your right hand

With the slanderers silenced,
sentenced to piercing flames,
call me with the blessed.

Kneeling I plead,
(my) contrite heart like ash:
carry my trouble until the end.

Adapted from a talk given by Cardinal George Pell to the Juventutum group of pilgrims at Düsseldorf, World Youth Day, 17 August 2005.

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