I believe that the Mystery of the Cross is saying that the pattern of transformation is always death transformed. Death and life are two sides of one coin, and you cannot have one without the other. The theological term for this classic pattern of descent and ascent was coined by Saint Augustine as “the paschal mystery.” We now proclaim it publicly at every Eucharist as “the mystery of faith.” But why?
The pattern of down and up, loss and renewal, enslavement and liberation, exile and return, transformation through darkness and suffering is quite clear in the first Bible of Nature and in the Hebrew Scriptures; you do not need to wait for the New Testament. Jesus uses the Jonah symbol and says, “it is the only sign he is going to give” (Luke 11:29). Jonah in the belly of the whale seems to be Jesus’ own metaphor for what would later become the doctrine of the cross.
So how does this happen? How does the victim transform us? How does the Lamb of God “take away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; note that “sin” here is singular)? How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it a cosmic magic act? Jesus is saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed, or helpless again! I am giving you an internal victory over all that might destroy you!”
Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin—ignorant hatred and violence, not the usual preoccupation with purity codes—and by refusing the usual pattern of vengeance, which keeps us inside of an insidious quid pro quo logic. In fact, he “returns their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:28), teaching us that we can “follow him” and not continue the spiral of violence. He unlocks our entrapment from within.
Jesus has set the inevitable in motion. Both the problem and the strategy have been revealed in one compelling action on God’s part. It is not that Jesus is working some magic in the sky that “saves the world from sin and death.” Jesus is unveiling a mystery that redefines the common pattern of human history. Jesus is not changing his Father’s mind about us because it does not need changing (as in various “atonement theories”); he is changing our mind about what is real and what is not. The cross is not a required transaction (which frankly makes little sense), but the mystery of how evil is transformed into good.
Jesus on the cross identifies with the human problem, the sin, the darkness. He refuses to stand above or outside the human dilemma. Further, he refuses to scapegoate, and instead becomes the scapegoat personified (as we’ll explore in greater detail next week). In Paul’s language, “Christ redeemed us from the curse . . . by being cursed himself” (Galatians 3:13); or “God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him [together with him!] we might become the very goodness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Is it beginning to make sense?
Loss and renewal is the perennial, eternal, transformative pattern. It’s like a secret spiral: each time you allow the surrender, each time you can trust the dying, you will experience a new quality of life within you: “How we do not know; of its own accord, the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:27-28). Paul calls this “the hidden wisdom of God . . . predestined to be for our glory before the ages began” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Only the humble and the patient recognize the redemptive pattern, it seems.
Gateway to Silence:
I am crucified with Christ.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Dying: We Need It for Life” and “The Spirituality of Imperfection,” Richard Rohr on Transformation, Collected Talks, Vol. 1, discs 4 and 2 (Franciscan Media: 2005); and
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 188-189.
Transformation means to change form, move across, or “shape-shift.” To be transformed is to look out at reality from a genuinely new source and center, seeing things in a larger and more holistic way. —Richard Rohr