The victory of Christ on the Cross was not a victory of sunshine, happy thoughts, and rainbows. Nay, it was a victory of sublime splendor. It was horrifying. It was total. It was—and remains—through the eyes of faith, also beautiful.
St. Paul says that he is determined to know, and preach, nothing but “Christ and Him crucified.” It is true that Paul talks about the sin of Adam and the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Second Adam. Yet if Paul could be reduced to one theological talking point it would be “Christ and Him crucified,” after all, that is precisely what Paul does for himself. But in Christ and Him crucified the aesthetic is, at first glance, horrifying—a terrible splendor of a body bruised and mangled; yet for the Christian this sublime aesthetic of horror gives way to a stark beauty which reveals the asymmetrical reality of mysterium tremendum et fascinans and the reality of salvation through sacrifice.
“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The most beautifully haunting moment during the Easter Vigil is to be locked in the church, completely dark, before the doors are opened and the dim flame of Christ enters. In the “Paschal Troparion” of the eastern churches, they sing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” I am never not amazed, no less tremendously moved, when I hear these words with an angelic chant which equally reminds us of the dread majesty of God—for we are reminded that Christ has not only risen from the dead but that he has trampled down death by death and brought life to those in the tomb. Nevertheless, the beginning of every Easter Vigil reminds us, through its atmosphere of darkness, that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—for without fear we have no shame and no humility to approach the “all-consuming fire” that is God with reverence and care; without fear we approach God as Nadab and Abihu did.
Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful is fondly remembered for charting a philosophical exposition on the nature of the sublime and beautiful. While Burke clearly favored the fragility and delicacy of the beautiful, he nonetheless wanted to leave room for the sublime because Burke rightly understood that there was an impulse to the sublime in human nature. Burke defined the sublime as, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” Burke’s definition of the sublime, and the beautiful (in its fragility and delicacy), is a great entry into the aesthetic of salvation and the fear necessary for salvation and wisdom.
Fear of the Lord helps to remind us of our dependence on God. Fear also reminds us of the relational asymmetry between God and man. Fear humbles man, it takes man’s pride and smashes it. Man is the not the measure and mover of all things. God is. Man is but the potter’s jar in comparison. Fear destroys the illusion that man is on an equal footing with God.
God tells Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live” which reaffirms this asymmetrical relationship between God and man. Despite his hardships, Job rebukes his friends and reminds them that pious fear of the Lord is the center of a holy life, “As soon as he shall move himself, he shall trouble you: and his dread shall fall upon you. Your remembrance shall be compared to ashes, and your necks shall be brought to clay.” Even with Christ as the Mediator between God and man He reminds us of the sublime splendor of His Second Coming: “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.” But of all the accounts of the Second Coming of Christ, the prophesy of Isaiah remains the most splendidly sublime and haunting of all the prophets:
For thus saith the Lord: Behold I will bring upon her as it were a river of peace, and as an overflowing torrent the glory of the Gentiles, which you shall suck; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you, and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb, and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants, and he shall be angry with his enemies. For behold the Lord will come with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind, to render his wrath in indignation, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord shall judge by fire, and by his sword unto all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many.
Who can, in their right mind, stand before this awesome presence and not be moved to extreme frenzy, movement, and even humiliation? Paul even informs all of us, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence,) with fear and trembling work out your salvation.” Why does the Apostle, even after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, recourse to fear as the beginning of wisdom and salvation? Because Christ doesn’t abrogate the Law but fulfills the Law in love. Fear of the Lord is still the beginning of wisdom and fear of the Lord is also the beginning of love and one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: “The fear of God is the beginning of his love: and the beginning of faith is to be fast joined unto it.”
All that was prophesied of Christ in the past is made true in and through Him. The very sight of God, even Christ, ought to be one of an awesome splendor. And how true this is at the sight of any beaten and mangled Christ on the Cross. That Christ, the Christ of Scripture, the Christ of History, the Christ of the Apostles who preached Him and Him Crucified, is the only Christ that we need. Far different is this Christ whom Paul preaches than the often effeminate social service Jesus of the contemporary world which makes Christ into your buddy, your pal, the man you high-five instead of prostrating to—head and knee—confessing as the Suffering Servant and Sacrificial Savior.
The victory of Christ on the Cross was not a victory of sunshine, happy thoughts, and rainbows. Nay, it was a victory of sublime splendor. It was horrifying. It was total. It was—and remains—through the eyes of faith, also beautiful. St. Luke informs us at this salvific moment, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land.” The sun was covered up. The white clouds dispersed. The sunny day had vanished with the snap of a finger. A dark and violent storm suddenly swept through Jerusalem when the Son of God was pierced and His blood and water poured out of His side to redeem the world.
This should not be surprising to the Christian. For it was in the chaotic watery and dark void that God brought forth land and order. It was in the darkness of a torrential downpour that the Earth was flooded, Noah and his family spared. This is how God constantly remade and refashioned the world for His purpose and Glory: through trial, storm, and repudiation of the wickedness of the world and the foolish so-called wisdom of the world.
It was the dark crucifixion that brought salvation into the world. And during that crucifixion a man was beaten, stripped, and pierced. He was hung on a cross as blood dripped down His head and gushed out of his side. Darkness consumed the land.
Christ’s humiliating sacrifice also returns us to the asymmetry of God and man. Here, the sublimity of the crucifixion gives way to an unfathomable beauty marked by the fragility of Christ’s love for the Church. The Christ that Paul preaches and the Christ whom Paul commends us to know is the Christ who “humbled Himself . . . even to death on the cross.”
How great and how glorious it is to have a God who would put on the frailty of the human body and be nailed to a tree? How great and how glorious it is to have a God who would penetrate the Cosmos and suffer the same sufferings and temptations that we mortal humans suffer? How great and how glorious it is to have a God who would, Himself, be the sacrificial victim to reconcile us in our fallenness and sinfulness to a perfect and all holy Deity? The sight of Christ crucified should send a shocking shiver down the spine of every believer—for Christ and Him crucified reveals the extent of God’s love and self-emptying for His beloved. Looking upon the crucifix at church, or even a painting like Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Elevation of Cross,” or, perhaps most sublimely, Matthew Grunewald’s “The Crucifixion,” should cause one to drop onto their knees and bow their head in shame and humiliation knowing how far God’s love stretches compared to our often narcissistic self-love that flees at the first sight and sound of danger.
The sublime aesthetic of salvation captured during Holy Week, from Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion on Good Friday to His resurrection on Easter Sunday, reveals the radical dependence of man to God and not God to man as our contemporary humanist theologies like to portend. This totalizing God whom man cannot look upon and live is the “all-consuming fire” God of Scripture and not the god of “ambrosial fragrance” whom the Platonists chase after or the banal and dry deity locked in eternal self-contemplation of Aristotle and the Stoics. The God who was crucified as the sacrificial savior is the same God who swallowed up Nadab and Abihu for their irreverence; burned Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquity; turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt; and will return with an army of chariots wielding a flaming sword to smite the reprobate.
At every level the God who saves ought to be horrifying and frightening. It is only through the Christian’s eyes that the most sublime moment in human history—the death of the Godman on the Cross—also becomes the most beautiful moment in all history. It is a beautiful moment because in that moment of crucifixion, “Christ and Him crucified,” we witness the fullness of the love from the same God who is Lord of the Sea and Sky, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and humbled Pharaoh and Egypt. We witness God hearing the cries of His people and entering their world and human condition to die that most inglorious death which wrought salvation to His beloved.
It is only through faith that we see this God who was nailed to a cross as something beautiful. That the fragile image of a mangled body—“Christ and Him crucified”—ought to move us to tears and collapse us to our knees as we bow in fear and trembling at the awesome totality of God’s power and love, lest we be consumed by the fire. It is true that Christ is risen, but it wasn’t the resurrection of Christ that brought salvation but His death on the Cross that brought salvation.
Paul preaches the suffering of Christ and Christ crucified more than anything else in his epistles. He tells the Romans, “But God commendeth his charity towards us; because when as yet we were sinners, according to the time, Christ died for us; much more therefore, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son; much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” He tells the Corinthians, “For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures.” All throughout Paul’s writings he emphasizes the atoning sacrifice of Christ in accordance with Scripture and what was prophesied by David, Isaiah, and all the prophets. And on Good Friday it is only with this Christ in mind that we can begin to fathom why the death of the Son of God can be called Good and be moved to a weeping serenity as His heartbeat expired, freeing us of sin, and paving the way to the Final Passover into the Jerusalem above.
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The featured image is “Christ Expiring on the Cross” by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1618-1620) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.