When we come into the proximity of the cross we are challenged as people, as who we are, as who I am. We might think of this as a double challenge – first to our biography but also as a challenge to our identity.
The challenge to our biography is the challenge to our life story – and the decisions and turning points in it. From time to time we can enjoy celebratory days when we remember with gladness our better decisions, our more loving or courageous actions, our most worthy efforts and even our good fortune or luck. Blessings are there to be counted, and we do a good thing by counting them.
But no one’s life adds up to a relentless list of charitable and worthy actions; none of us love all the time or with a perfect heart; no one knows only blessings in this life. We all have bad days and bad luck and we all mess up. Often it’s because we lack the ability to do a good job, sometimes it’s because we lack the time or other resources. Other times it’s because we lack the will to do good or the vision to see what might be done for the best. Sometimes it’s because our will, our desire, is actually malign and we wish the worst on or for others. For many of us this is not the most common root of our sin and shame, but few indeed have no such poison in their soul. And proximity to the cross is one way of safely letting this come to the surface so that you might be forgiven, healed and restored. Better to come to terms with all this in Good Friday afternoon than to be clogged up with such issues on your deathbed when palliative drugs are fogging your mind.
But there are questions of identity too. If our autobiographical self-inquisition is about our guilt then our identity self-inquisition is about our shame, which is far more deep-seated and pervasive aspect of who we are and what’s ill-at-ease about us. Shame is a hard word to live with, and often seeks to hide itself, but perhaps we can and should sensitize ourselves to the experience of shame. We are in often in shame when we talk of low self-esteem or lack of confidence; shame is at work when people find themselves harming themselves either directly by inflicting open wounds on their own flesh, or indirectly though some kind of substance abuse, or by constantly undermining themselves by listening to a relentlessly self-denigrating internal commentary.
The cross speaks to our shame through the public and total humiliation of Christ. There really is no hiding place on a cross. All is exposed. It’s the worst possible nightmare for the person who lives a life covered with shame, and who enfolds themselves in that terrible garment.
A great deal of western Christian theology has been built on the idea that the cross takes away our guilt and through the atoning work of Jesus who suffers divine punishment that we justly deserve in our stead. That narrative has a hard time dealing with the realty of shame. A richer and truer one, I suggest, is that it is on the cross that God in Christ is radically and totally exposed in complete and vulnerable humility. And it is as such that God offers grace, healing and salvation to the person in shame, the person without self-confidence, and with a desire to hide in fleshy contingency and verbal obfuscation and even to inflict self-harm physically or mentally. God on the cross gains identity by foregoing security and self-protection. It is thus Jesus who attains God, not as something in addition to whom he is, but in a way that is ‘new’ in the New Testament sense of being eternally revitalising.
The cross stands at the heart of the New Testament, this we know, but it also stands at the heart of the forever new identity of the baptised, an identity shaped by the constant washing away of the guilty and shameful traces of sin.
From a sermon delivered at Great St Mary’s Cambridge, 14 April 2017