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Sacred Images

The Cross

Sacred Images
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In Jesus we have a confluence of three sacred healing images from the Hebrew Scriptures: the Passover lamb, which is the presentation of the innocent victim (Exodus 12); the “Lifted-Up One,” which is the homeopathic curing of the victim (Numbers 21:6-9); and, finally, the scapegoat ritual, wherein the rejected victim, bearing the community’s sins, is beat into the desert, to die (Leviticus 16).

The victim state has been the plight of most people who have ever lived on this earth, so in all three cases we see Jesus identifying with humanity at its most critical and most vulnerable level. We see God in radical solidarity with all the pain of the world “since the blood of Abel” much more than an omnipotent deity who, with a flick of the hand, overcomes all pain. Let’s unpack these rich images of compassion and transformation. Today we’ll focus on the Passover lamb, then we’ll look at the “Lifted-up One,” and next week we’ll delve into the pattern of scapegoating.

Every year, on the tenth day of Nisan, each family was to pick out a perfect little lamb without any spot or blemish and take it to their home and then, on the fourteenth day, kill it (Exodus 12:1-14). In the Passover commemoration, we have an image of the death of something good and innocent. All suffering is unjust, undeserved, tragic, and nonsensical. We will never find any logic to it, but we try to fit it inside of some ledger of accountability when we blame or accuse someone else. This is the pattern. It is universal, but most do not see it.

I believe the innocent lamb symbolizes the ego or the privately constructed self. It is not bad; in fact, it feels like “me.” And it is. But not the full or deepest me. It is who I think I am; it is what I have learned that I cannot live without. But when we let go of this temporary imposter, we break through to a much deeper level of our own life! But it always feels unjust and unnecessary. It is always a risk, just like Jesus being carried into the tomb.

Jesus on the cross is not an image of the death of the bad self but, in fact, the self that feels right and necessary—but isn’t! Jesus had been misunderstood and misinterpreted. He had every good reason to play the victim or the blame card, but he did neither. This is astounding when you consider the main story line of history is exactly the opposite to this day.

To understand Jesus in a whole new way, you must first know that Christ is not his last name, but his eternal identity both before and after the Resurrection. The raising up of Jesus is not a one-time miracle that we must believe, but a revelation of the constant and only pattern. Nothing has to die permanently! Many scientists now say nothing does die. Or as the Catholic funeral Mass puts it, “life is not ended, but merely changed.”

Jesus became the Christ, which is to include all of us in this eternal movement through time and death (see Acts 2:36). That’s why Paul creates the new term “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12), a corporate image to communicate what is happening to all of us too. Jesus dies, Christ rises. The small vehicle must die so the more inclusive vehicle can rise. Thus Paul’s most common shortcut phrase is en Christo, which he uses 164 times. “Unless the single grain of wheat dies, it will remain just a single grain of wheat, but if it dies it will bear a rich harvest” (John 12:24). If you prefer a different language, the small identity must surrender its ego boundaries to fall into the Larger Identity.

I think this is Jesus’ major message: there is something essential that you only know by dying. You really don’t know what life is until you know what death is. Death, which seems like our ultimate enemy, is actually the doorway. This is how Jesus “overcame” and even “destroyed” death.

Gateway to Silence:
I am crucified with Christ.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 189-191.

Image credit: White Crucifixion (detail), Marc Chagall, 1938, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
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