Project Canterbury

Selfhood and Sacrifice
The Seven Problems of the Atoning Life

Addresses on the Words from the Cross

By the Reverend Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.

COULD I behold that endlesse height which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish's thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice which ransom'd us?

JOHN DONNE, Riding Westward (Good Friday, 1613).


"Woman, behold thy son. . . . Behold thy Mother."
--ST. JOHN 19:26-27.

SOMEHOW or other we have grown accustomed to think of the saints as those so especially close to God as to claim certain exemptions. "God's favorites" might not inadequately sum up the popular notion of the relations of the saints to God. In them He has a unique responsiveness to His will. The saints are they who take His Word seriously, and who, in consequence, stand in a peculiar relationship to Him: a relationship of intimacy, understanding, and fellowship. Would it not be reasonable, then, to suppose that growth in holiness involves growth in exemption from some of the perplexities which beset the rest of us? Is it not logical that they who stand in so intimate a relationship to Him should be uniquely blessed and privileged? What special privilege may be found in the lives of God's saints?

Now the fact is the exact reverse of our popular opinions. That popular opinion can be very simply phrased: "Piety pays." We have not outlived those earliest levels of man's evolution God-ward, when he thought that to be on good terms with the Deity meant the enhancement of certain of the values of economic life. The Old Testament is full of the idea that if you are good and obedient "it will be well with thee" (Deuteronomy 6: 18). Do you remember the words of the Psalm: "I have been young and now am old, and never have I seen the righteous forsaken or his seed begging their bread"? Do not most of us think, in our heart of hearts, that religion duly practised will lead to prosperity, and happiness of a very tangible sort, in this life? I remember one time when I was trying to comfort a bereaved person, being met with the agonized question: "What have I done that I should deserve this? I have not been this bad--I know I haven't!" Of course she hadn't. She was quite right in her conclusion, but--how utterly inadequate were her premises! Neither she nor many others of us take the trouble or make the effort to look at the premises of our religion. It is a crisis or an unforeseen emergency which shows up the real motives of our religion with merciless clarity and glaring ruthlessness. What connection has prosperity with piety?

The book of Job is an answer to the half-truth of Ezekiel (18:4.)--"The soul that sinneth it shall die." "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither the father the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him" (18: 20). How true is "proportional retribution"? Job is a discussion of this whole question. If--on the assumptions of then current orthodoxy--you are good, you will be prosperous. Conversely (Job's "comforters" urged) if thou are not prosperous, you couldn't be good! Job maintained that if they reasoned correctly, he who knew he wasn't as bad as the proportion of his afflictions indicated, had no other way out of the dilemma they had put before him than to say that if his friends thought of Job's experiences as a sample of God's ways with men, God could not be acquitted of the charge of injustice. If--said he to them in effect--you do not try to force me to call His ways just, then I shan't have to call them unjust. In other words, the author of the book of Job saw clearly that the old conviction was inadequate, if not wrong--that piety produces prosperity.

But it is appallingly hard for men to learn this lesson. It is our Lord and His saints who best can teach us. Think of His Blessed Mother, for example. Did her intimate and unique relationship with the God Man mean exemption or privilege for her? The aged Simeon after uttering the Nunc dimittis and blessing her said: "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also" (St. Luke 2: 35). God's every relation to our Lady tells the same story: the favored one of all mankind was to be privileged? Yes--if privilege mean increasing suffering, and a sharing of the Passion before the Crucifixion. Consider: the Annunciation--coupled with St. Joseph's suspicions: "although he was a righteous man, still he did not want to hold her up to public excoriation, and so thought to put her away privily" (St. Matthew 1: 19); the Nativity--the Holy Birth in a stable at Bethlehem, away from home, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (St. Luke 2:7); the Flight into Egypt--(St. Matthew 2: 13-14); the Presentation; the Finding in the Temple--the First Miracle at Cana--every reported incident in our Lady's life in the gospels tells us of a new suffering, separation, and sorrow which came to her who was the Mother of the Saviour. Lastly, here is that Blessed Mother and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of His Cross. Jesus looks down at the sea of faces--puzzled, hostile, amused; kindly, embittered, compassionate; and lastly at her who bore Him and him who suffered Him to love him so dearly--and dissolving one He creates a new family, baptizing the new relationship with the blood from His sacred wounds. Does sanctity mean privilege? Does it involve exemptions from the usual trials of life?

When that same John had come with his brother James to Jesus, their request for favored position next our Lord in glory was met with the rejoinder: "Ye know not what ye ask: are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of? . . . And they said unto Him: We are able" (St. Mark 10: 38-39). The only promise our Lord gave them was the assurance of a share in His Passion, not the joy of participation in His Glory as judge. The closer to Jesus, then, means the closer to His Passion. The principle might almost be put in the form of a mathematical proportion: the greater intimacy of holiness, the closer approximation to His suffering.

That this has been a constant note in the life of the saints is clear from all their biographies. It is the peculiarly Christian technique in the presence of pain and suffering to appropriate it as a privilege of intimacy with the Crucified. This is a new note in the art of living. Of old there had been those whose wisdom on the subject might be summed up in the phrase: avoid it. Then there had come the Stoics who inculcated the Spartan maxim: bear it with impassivity, having achieved a training in fortitude and indifference whereby its evil could be deflected. Latterly we are told to deny the reality of pain and suffering. These three methods all exist side by side in society today. All rest under the same criticism that pain and suffering cannot by any such method be made fruitful--whether by dodging, bearing, or denying it. In all three several ways of dealing with suffering and pain there is a common note: the uselessness, fruitlessness, and pointlessness of it. The Christian has been shown a better way.

That more excellent way learned at the Cross is the way of meeting, overcoming, and transforming suffering and sorrow and pain. Not even the evils and ills of life are outside the grasp of the great Artist in living. Surely to utilize them is the best method of dealing with the recalcitrant obstacles that beset our journey through life. As our Lord did, so followed His saints--afar off. The suffering was neither avoided, nor merely accepted, far less was it repudiated or denied as non-existent. It was met, submitted to, and made useful in the atoning work of redemption. When we can bear it, He allows us to accomplish the like achievement--whether with physical pain, mental grief, or the dull agony of bitter bereavement of soul: "In all points tempted as are we, yet without sin." "For in that He Himself hath suffered, being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted." "The Captain of our salvation made perfect through sufferings" (Hebrews 4:15; 3:18, 10). So the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the priestly suffering of Jesus on the Cross, from whom descended on those closest to Him on earth the verdict pronouncing the consummation of their suffering: "Behold thy son . . . thy mother."

The cutting edge of all suffering consists in separation--from the security of health or possessions, from the certainty of owning that by which assurance and confidence are engendered, or from dear and loved ones. The sufferings of the Cross are of all three kinds: the bodily and physical, the poverty and isolation with the sense of condemnation by men, and finally the yielding up of the life-long bond of mother-sonhood. Separation means bringing to an end, and arriving at a destination. The finishing off of all that had been (as we shall see) is a perfect consummation in the artistry of Jesus crucified. We think here only of the dissolution of the old as the means of creating a new relationship: "Behold thy son . . . thy mother."

Suffering, grief, estrangement, and pain are transmuted and elevated into a new vehicle and level of fruitful action. His Passion was in truth action of heroic proportions! The most intense application of the power of conversion was exhibited in the priest-person, offering for an immolation that which was to be the means of unthinkable power. Suffering is in itself so essentially negative and fruitless and futile that to make constructive use of it is the demonstration of astounding artistry. What could conceivably be made of the relationship of Son to Mother, of Master to Beloved Disciple, in the light of the stultification of both relationships brought to pass by the death of Son and Master on a cross?

Out of the old relationship He created a new one, transmuting discipleship to brotherhood and transferring His Son-ship to all men. With the deft touch and sure certitude of perfection, the negating futility of the Cross was made to yield an immense fruitfulness positive in quality. A new family relationship is born of the Cross. A new intimacy, transcending the most sacred of human affiliations, is made possible by Calvary. "So we," as St. Paul tells us, "being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Romans 12:5). There is incorporation into Christ by which we are one with Him, and hence we become members one of another. It is by identification with Christ--as by her unique relationship who freely willed to bear Him, or as by his loving discipleship who freely willed to follow Him even to Calvary--that we are privileged to share what He is, in our allegiance to His Person. Thereupon follows inevitably our new relationship to each other in Him: His Mother is ours, we are her sons, too, by adoption, and are therefore brethren in a new sense.

Every Christian family, then, is but a field wherein the New Family in Christ can be again realized. Our human relations, if become Christian to the fullest extent, are a reproduction of God's own selfhood as revealed in relationships: we bow our "knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom every (instance of) fatherhood in heaven and earth gets its name" (Ephesians 3: 14-15). The relation of father to child is but the actualization in the human level of the heavenly fact of the relation between Father and Son. The relationship of child to mother is but a copy of that between our Lord and the Blessed Virgin. But a Christian home must be more: all that is of possessiveness and exclusiveness in temper and outlook must be banished. "Ownership" whether of and by husband and wife of each other; "possessiveness" and selfishness of mood and temper with regard to children; the proprietorship of attitude--all these are foreign to the spirit of Christian family life. Into its circle others are brought in to participate. From its very being goes forth the disposition and eager desire to share. Friendships of unique quality and high worth emanate from its intimate life. It is nourished by giving; it is sustained by spending; it is strengthened by the forth-givingness which is its regulative principle. It is inclusive in its scope. No family which is truly Christian can flourish by hoarding its treasures--whether of worldly goods, comforts, hospitality, or personality--far less exist at its best. It is at its best when its chief note is "costingness" as Von Hügel phrased the idea. The Christian family is not an inheritance of conformity to code, but an achievement of self-denying generosity. It is not a thing given, but the result of conquest. It is the area of vital growth, the school of discipleship, and the supreme instance of the seed-plot where Christians are made. In fulfilment of our Lord's ideal it illustrates His words: "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (St. John 10: 10).

If other members of Christ's family here on earth are included within the scope of sympathy and the conscious attentions of the Christian family, surely that inclusiveness of view should embrace as well His Heavenly Family. The saints are within the family circle, too, not only as dearly loved kinsfolk who are no longer in the flesh, but as vital personalities of intimate concern to each several member. Pictures and statues of the saints adorn the walls of the home where their memory and solicitude are not forgotten. Devotional practices make vivid and lasting the impressions and technique of cultivating their acquaintance. Empowering affection for them can fructify family life as any other stimulus of family tradition effectively conditions and molds standards and ideals of behavior.

Our best model, then, for the pursuit of the Christian life is not to be found in the conduct of the individual, save as that behavior is related. We realize selfhood in society, and never cease to be all those formative influences, whether of personality--parents, kinsfolk, friends--or of place and events, which have gone to make us what we are. In a true sense, even if it be a mystical conception, we are a part of all those who have influenced us: what they have shared with us we bear in us as part of our very selves. No one can be a Christian in a vacuum. The Christian life, as the reflection in us of the life of God, is life not only in, but of, society. God is Himself a Society of Three Persons, yet One. We who are members of Christ cannot truly be ourselves when we are only selves. Pure individuality is not only a false and untrue notion, but it is more; it is a violation of that whereby we become what we are. We are Christians, in other words, because of the saints: what we are at our best is due under God to them. In each of us there is a fundamental family resemblance to God's saints, for their blood runs in our veins.

Then surely it follows that neither as did they seek or expect exemption from the sharing in the Cross in life, nor should we. Family likeness extends not only to character, but also to its handling of circumstance. Our characteristics are demonstrated not only by our conduct as character, but by our behavior in fact. A strong family likeness is to be discerned not only internally but externally as well, in our continuing to show forth the cross in our lives, but also in the cross by which we do show forth our lives.

The life of the Passion is a privilege, not a penalty. A popular advertising slogan says: "None genuine without this trademark." The sign of the Cross on every transaction of life is a seal of the reality of its Christian quality. We behave like subnormal Christians when we fall to the "piety-produce-prosperity" level. We are untrue to our highest capacities when we regard exemption from the cross in life as anything else than a concession to our infirmities. "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6: 14). The note of "taking pleasure in infirmities" (II Corinthians 12: 10) is not so conspicuous a trait in our behavior today that it can be presumed and taken for granted. We need once again effectively to face the problem of the Cross in our own lives. All policies and ways that have as their sole aim the artificial simplification of our difficulties; the innumerable counsels advising various and sundry types of easier ways; the rendering out of the onerous, distasteful, hard, and painful--all these should be at least suspect. They may not necessarily be wrong or inadvisable in the individual instance, but their motivation is certainly inadequate. Nor must we fall into the opposite error of deliberately seeking the difficulties and courting problems which as a matter of fact modern life will readily furnish us without the asking. A course of conduct is not necessarily right because it is hard or unpleasant. Above all things we must remember that the Gospel of the Cross is one of fruitfulness, not a counsel of futility. We have every reason--nay, there is a sacred obligation, before we assume some new type of onerous burden, or novel affliction, whether to temper, means, effort, or sympathy--to scrutinize the fruitful and constructive possibilities latent, by God's grace, in the course of conduct proposed. Fruitful is easily confused with futile, and constructive with the merely constrictive. That a possible action may be burdensome does not necessarily make it Christian. That it is difficult is not a genuine proof that it is incumbent upon us as a Christian obligation.

Christ created a Society on earth that "answereth to" the Heavenly Society, which is God. We cannot too often contemplate the two truths: of the essentially corporate character of the Christian religion, and of the novel and fresh creation of this Society by our Lord. A Christian cannot either be such, or act as such, in a vacuum. No matter how removed he be--as were for example, some of the hermits--from the haunts of men, the exercise of both belief and practice were social. His religion must be socially generated, socially motivated, socially exercised, and socially realized at the latter end. He is adopted into a family-the Family of Christ--in which he lives, moves, and has his being. Family ways determine his code of behavior. Family strength ministers to and compensates for his weaknesses as his virtues and vitality nourish and increase the solid corporate power of the Family. From before the cradle till beyond the grave he is part of a larger whole, a member rather than an individual. No good deed of his is without its social reference; no evil or feeble or futile thought, without its repercussions in the Body Corporate of Christ.

The New Family or Society in Christ is an innovatory thing. It is more than a continuation of the Old Israel, this "Israel of God." All things start off afresh with, in, and through Him. By incorporation into Him we become new creatures: we were not "new creatures" until that act of initiation made us such. The quality of novelty tinges everything that characterizes the New Society: its standards are not those of the world--by what worldly wisdom would any leader promise the Cross as the reward of notable discipleship?; nor of the prudence of human experience--by what common sense of man's usage would the sharp edge of a unique relationship be dulled to be rendered nugatory by its reduction to an apparent commonplace?; nor of the verdict of human society--by what conclusion of social understanding would an ex-prostitute be brought within the inner circle of the friends of a God crucified?; nor of racial tradition--by what sense of the fitting would a new society be justified in mixing up together the cultured and ignorant, the upper and lower classes, political rivals and enemies, and personal incompatibilities? The privilege of the Cross is the gift of God to those who of all ranks, classes, races, and peoples seek intimacy with His Son.

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