Lovely stories of Bethlehem

The Cross, an Amazing Paradox *

By Harry Emerson Fosdick, Living Under Tension, 1941, Harper and Brothers, New York and London, pages 233 – 242.

It is one thing to preach a Christmas sermon about the radiant stories that light up the birth of Jesus; it is another to preach a Palm Sunday sermon about the tragic events that culminated in the cross. John Milton celebrated the birth of Jesus in his glorious ode, “On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” but when he tried to write a companion piece on Jesus’ death he gave it up. In his published works one finds the uncompleted beginning, with a note appended saying: “This subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” What preacher, trying to speak about the cross, does not share Milton’s despair and his desire to surrender the endeavor? Quite apart from any recondite theology, the cross confronts us with some of the most perplexing paradoxes we can face.

One of the simplest of them is that the cross, with its associated events, presents an ancient historic spectacle on a grand and panoramic scale and yet it is an intimate, personal matter that involves us, everyone. Many spectacular events loom large in history such as the campaigns of Alexander and the fall of Rome, before which we stand as before some Niagara, some Grand Canyon of the Colorado huge phenomena. Among them one of the most impressive is the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The characters of that drama are momentous. Rome was there with her imperial power; one of the world’s great religions was there in an hour of critical decision ; the most moving figure in man’s spiritual record was there ; and the total tragedy, as it worked itself out, was intensely dramatic and incalculably influential. Yet this historic spectacle in the grand manner, now nearly 2000 years old and in a far distant land, personally includes you and me.

Recall that moving Negro spiritual, “When they crucified my Lord, were you there ?” Even to ask that question is strange. Suppose it concerned the slaying of Julius Caesar. That, too, was a momentous tragedy yet who ever thought of asking whether we were there? But this other question is asked and has been asked in manifold ways times without number across the centuries : “When they crucified my Lord, were you there?” Well, we were there; in a deep sense we are there. All the major factors in that tragedy involve you and me. The blindness of religious leaders who cannot see a new and larger truth, the selfishness of a business community that does not want the profitable traffic in the temple courts disturbed, the disloyalty of Judas, who cares more for himself than for Christ, the political shrewdness of Pilate, who does his best to free Jesus, but, finding it costs too much, washes his hands of it, the emotionalism of the crowd, stirred by effective propaganda to cry for they know not what, the fearfulness of disciples who run away — who of us was not there?

Not one unusual sin was involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. Say, as we will, that the tragic result was the towering crime of history, doing to a shameful death the “young Prince of Glory,” still it was our small, familiar, day-by-day sins that did it. I have walked the streets of Jerusalem and recapitulated in detail the events of that last week, and alas, how easy for one to imagine oneself sharing in it all ! When they crucified our Lord, we were there.

Consider, for example, the crowd’s choice of Barabbas rather than of Jesus. Barabbas was no common criminal. He was, says Matthew’s Gospel, “a notable prisoner.” His name means “son of a rabbi.” He was a patriot, an outstanding nationalist, tired of subjection to Roman rule, calling for violent insurrection. He himself had dared murder, trying to foment rebellion. He appealed to the admiration of the crowd ; they wanted him released. But this Jesus, this idealist, this believer in spiritual forces, who even told them to love their enemies, “Away with him, crucify him!” That Is not ancient history. That is the contemporary world in all its ruinous barbarity, its trust in force. Listen in the public places of the world, and it is as though echoes came from a far-off time, crying, “Release unto us Barabbas.”

Every factor that sent Jesus to the cross involves our familiar, day-by-day iniquities. Recall how at the Last Supper Jesus said to the disciples, “One of you shall betray me,” and they all asked, we read, Peter, James, John, and all the rest, “Is it I?” So one walks in imagination through the streets of Jerusalem that last week and at every step one has to say, “Is it I?”

A still deeper paradox follows. The crucifixion of Jesus was so cruel and unjust a crime that no worse thing, I think, can be said about man than that man is capable of doing that ; yet the cross of Christ, more than any other influence in history, has elevated and dignified man’s sense of his essential worth and possibility. That is a paradox.

Look at the cross in its stark horror. What happened there has been called “the loneliest death in all history.” Jesus’ nation had rejected him as a traitor; his church had rejected him as a heretic. He was alone. The Roman soldiers had spit upon him; Pilate had washed his hands of him; the crowd jeered at him; his friends forsook him. He was alone. The Fourth Gospel says, to be sure, that Jesus’ mother was there, but the Fourth Gospel was not written before 100 A.D., and the first three Gospels, written earlier, say nothing of Jesus’ mother at Calvary. I am afraid we will have to stand by the first three Gospels. I am afraid he really was alone, until his heart broke in the most desolate of all cries : “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?” It was the loneliest death in all history.

Man did that. That is what man is capable of doing to the choicest soul that ever visited the earth. There the full measure of man’s sin stands revealed, the abyss of baseness man can fall to. What a beast and devil man can be ! How full of such barbarity his history is ! How can one believe in man, hope anything from man, when one sees the cross as the exhibition of his stupidity, and his pitiless cruelty wreaked through all his history upon the innocent?

Well, here is the paradox. The cross of Christ, supremely in history, has elevated and dignified man’s sense of his essential worth and possibility. Man, cries the New Testament, is the “brother for whose sake Christ died.” So the same cross that revealed man at his worst made man believe in himself at his best. That is a strange paradox.

The humanist scholar, Muretus, in the seventeenth century, a fugitive from France, fell ill in Lombardy, and looking like a vagabond in rags asked aid of the doctors. The physicians discussed his case in Latin, not thinking that this bedraggled pauper could understand the learned tongue. Faciamus experimentum in anima vili, they said, “Let us try an experiment with this worthless creature.” And to their amazement the “worthless creature” spoke to them in Latin: Vilem animam appellas pro qua Christus non dedignatus est mori? — “Will you call worthless one for whom Christ did not disdain to die?”

The influence of that idea has been incalculable. When a king stoops to pick up something it must have value. When Christ dies for someone there must be something in him worth dying for. Christ died for every man, says the New Testament. Let that idea once get really started and something is bound to happen to the estimate of man. Christianity has failed miserably in many ways but at its best it has reached out to those whom the world has commonly treated as worthless creatures — the wicked, the neglected, the insane, the blind, the prisoners ; it has believed in the value of personality even in its bedraggled forms, and the story of its sacrificial philanthropy toward the lowly and the lost, its Elizabeth Fry, John Howard, David Livingstone, Sir Wilfred Grenfell, and all the rest, constitutes the noblest element, I think, in human history. And at the fountainhead of this stream of faith in man has been the cross with its insistent appeal: “Will you call worthless one for whom Christ did not disdain to die ?”

The cross, where man is at his worst, has, more than any other influence, made man believe in his best. As Paul said : “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” That is a strange paradox. Surely there must be something real, potent, saving, victorious, at the heart of the spiritual world to achieve a consequence like that. When I so see the cross I believe afresh in God.

This, however, only leads to another paradoxical fact about Calvary : It was the most terrible thing that could have happened to Jesus and yet it was the best thing that happened to him. That is strange. The harrowing fact that it was the most dreadful thing that could have befallen him we need not expand upon. Suffice it to say that Jesus himself must have seen crucifixions. When he was a boy at Nazareth, the Jews broke out in insurrection in Sepphoris, barely five miles away, and Josephus tells us that two thousand were crucified by the Romans along the roadside. It is incredible that Jesus should not have seen many a crucified man hanging on a cross. He knew what the barbarity meant. No wonder he prayed in an agony : “If it be possible, let this cup pass away from me.”

Yet this calamity, so much the worst thing that could happen to anyone in the Roman world, was the best thing that could have happened to Jesus. The New Testament says that. “It became him,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Ah Christ, it is easy enough for someone after the event, in retrospect, to see that, but the marvel is that you saw it yourself. It is no sufficient statement of the case to say that your enemies put you to death ; you put yourself to death ; you walked straight into it with your eyes open ; that is what you said : “I lay down my life. . . . No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself.” You set your face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. You dared the cupidity of the temple ring and overturned their money tables. You prayed it out in Gethsemane when you might have run away. You put yourself on that cross. You knew — but how did you know — that this, the most appalling thing that could happen to you, was the best thing that could happen to you, your supreme chance to get at the heart of the world. How could anyone have known that 2000 years afterwards millions would be singing : “In the cross of Christ I glory”? Yet you did know that this, the worst that could befall you, was the best.

This mystery in the cross lights up many of our lesser mysteries. Browning has a phrase in one of his poems: “The worst turns the best to the brave.” How often that happens, even in our lesser lives! Whistler failed at West Point. He was deeply humiliated, but it is the best thing that could have happened to him. Otherwise he never would have been an artist. Oliver Goldsmith failed an examination as hospital mate and he could get no clientele as a physician. He was grievously disappointed, but if he had not failed he might never have written The Vicar of Wakefield. Daniel Defoe failed in business at the price of humiliation and suffering, for which we may all be thankful, for otherwise he would never have written Robinson Crusoe. Often the worst turns the best to the brave. In the light of the cross it is clear that trouble, hardship, disappointment, tragedy, are not accidents and intruders in life but part and parcel of it and that no one is prepared to live at all who is not prepared to welcome them, walk up to them, take them in, sometimes in the service of a sacrificial cause deliberately seek them and transmute them into good.

In one of O. Henry’s stories a shop girl keeps a picture of Lord Kitchener upon her bureau. She does not know much about him but she keeps his picture there and at times when her life is in danger of going weakly to pieces that stern face challenges and rallies her. Say as we will that Jesus was gentle, tender-hearted and friendly, be sure that he too had a stern face. He could confront the most dreadful thing that could happen, knowing that it was the best that could befall him.

We say we adore and love Christ. That is not the whole story. He is like the sea. I love it, but at times it is fearful. Then one stands in awe of it and wishes to see it only from a distance. So is Christ. Who that sees him clearly can help being drawn to him, but who that sees him clearly can help shrinking from him when with his stern face he says that some difficult and sacrificial thing we fear to do or suffer is the best thing that can befall us. He bought the right to say that in a hard market. He lived out that paradox himself. In a world where that can happen, there must be something like God.

This, however, leads us to a deeper paradox. The cross was a crushing defeat of righteousness and yet it was one of the greatest victories that righteousness ever won.

Here in this church today and throughout Christendom a mystery is present : Nearly 2000 years after the event, we are celebrating this week one of the most colossal failures of history. On Palm Sunday Jesus swung round the brow of Olivet amid the hosannas of the crowd but by Friday the crowd was crying, “Crucify him!” He had failed. In the sacred city of his faith he appealed for a reform of religion and the leaders of the people answered in Pilate’s court, “Away with him.” He had failed. He trusted his disciples to be the nucleus of the coming Kingdom of God, but one betrayed him, another denied him, and they all fled. He opposed violent revolt against Rome, differed not only from the Pharisees and Sadducees, but from the Zealots, those vehement nationalists and militarists of their day, and lo! he was accused of trying to make himself a king against Caesar, and Rome crucified him. It was a complete, sardonic, and colossal failure. That Friday night Pilate and the leaders of the people and all Jerusalem, and the disciples too, thought that Jesus was done for.

What can we make of the enigma that the future belongs to that failure? Of course, in understanding that enigma one cannot leave the Easter message out, the exultant reassurance of the disciples as the conviction dawned upon them, however it arose, that Jesus was not dead, but alive. Along with that, however, is a companion fact that ever since has made not merely Easter morning but the cross itself a source of Christian triumph. Here is the mystery: the most potent and impressive factor in the moral experience of man is vicarious self-sacrifice. The cross itself has in it a paradoxical duality : on the one side it is failure complete and awful ; on the other it is power, the most impressive and moving power in man’s ethical experience, the potency of a life that gets at the heart of the world by caring enough about the world to die for it. So one of the most colossal defeats of righteousness in history became one of the greatest triumphs righteousness ever won.

See how the ancient situation is now reversed ! Did Pilate sit in judgment on Jesus? Does not the whole world know that Pilate sat in judgment on himself ? Did Judas betray his Lord? Does not the whole world know that Judas betrayed himself? When the people in the Praetorium, clamoring for his death, cried : “His blood be on us, and on our children,” what merciful soul with any pity in him would not cry out to them, as it were, across the centuries, Unsay that ! Unsay that before it is too late ! There is an old legend that after Pilate died his body was cast into Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, under the shadow of Mt. Pilatus, and that every Good Friday his spirit is dragged by demons out of the waters and enthroned, while he still unavailingly washes his hands. So all who shared in Jesus’ crucifixion, could they return, would, if they might, wash their hands of it. For the future belonged to the failure.

In clays like these we may well be grateful for this paradox at the heart of the gospel. If the future belonged to the things that seem to succeed, then were all our hopes undone today, whether of democracy, or Christianity, or decent human 1 brotherhood. But there is something in the world deeper and stronger than the things that succeed, namely, the things that fail, the things that are everlastingly right and that honorably and sacrificially fail. They are the strongest elements in the world. George Tyrrell, a brave soul fighting a hard battle for his truth against many enemies, wrote once: “Again and again I have been tempted to give up the struggle, but always the figure of that strange Man hanging on the cross sends me back to my task again.” So ! That “strange Man” hanging on the cross, that colossal failure, whose pierced hands still hold the future in their grasp!

To be sure, now long after the event, the principle on which all this is based has percolated into human thinking and the seers have voiced it. Says Ruskin: “It is better to prefer honorable defeat to a mean victory.” Says George Eliot : “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.” Says Browning :

For thence, — a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks, —
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail.

But ah, Christ, how did you know that to fail as you did would be the surest way to succeed? For you said: “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone ; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” So they killed you on Calvary but you had in your possession a power they did not reckon with, the potency of a life that gets into the heart of the world by caring enough for the world to die for it.

This, then, is the conclusion of the matter, the crowning paradox of all. The cross was a denial of God, a blatant, cruel denial of God, and yet it was supremely the revelation of God. Why across the centuries, through changing world views and theologies, has the cross of Christ so held the fascinated attention of mankind? This, I suspect, is the main reason : Our life itself is an enigma, and it takes an enigma to meet its need. What good would Christianity be to us today if it were centered and confined in the lovely stories of Bethlehem, with adoring wise men and shepherds and singing angels? That is no adequate representation of what life confronts us with. Life is a mysterious, baffling, often tragic enigma, and the cross, which is an enigma too, talks to our true estate — a huge, historic tragedy that yet takes in you and me, a revelation of man at his worst that yet awakens faith in man at his best, the worst that can happen that yet turns the best to the brave, a crushing defeat of righteousness that yet is one of the greatest victories righteousness ever won, and so a supreme denial of God that yet has supremely revealed him. Thus the enigma of human life is matched and illumined by the enigma of Calvary :

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died.

* A Palm Sunday Sermon

Painting “The Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault.

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