“I sense the presence of God in this place, but what does the man on the cross have to do with it?”
I sat alone in the hushed monastery chapel of the Society of John the Evangelist, gazing up at the brass crucifix over the entrance to the monastic choir. The monastery was a mile and a half from where I grew up in Cambridge. I had passed the site hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over the previous twenty years. There is even a black and white photo of me at four years old, perched on the handlebars of my father’s bicycle as he walks it along the sidewalk by the Charles River, right in front of the monastery. But for years I was barely aware of the walled garden by the sidewalk, or the striking Italian gothic tower that rose above the trees on Memorial Drive.
But there was a two-week period during which - for the first time in my life - I gave Christianity serious consideration. At the beginning, I was not a believer, but I thought I might want to be (a big change for me). Two weeks later I was a convinced believer in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis said something similar about himself - except that the period of time in question was the duration of a train ride, and he couldn’t say for sure when during that journey the change took place. I, however, can remember precisely when I said, “yes Lord, I want to be a Christian now, whatever it takes.”
During the two weeks leading up to that moment, I was in and out of the monastery chapel by the river almost every day. I would sit in the dark stillness for long periods of time, trying to pray - mentally reaching out to the inescapable sense of presence that I felt there. Years later I read a book called The Idea of the Holy by the German theologian, Rudolf Otto. He described what he called the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” as that which is “wholly other” and which elicits “the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”
All this became real to me, and I was happy to ascribe the awe-inspiring presence to the personal God of Christianity. My problem was this: what did this sense of awe and presence have to do with the bronze figure dangling in anguish on the cross in front of me? Yes, I knew in a rudimentary sense who Jesus was. I knew it wasn’t enough simply to say that he was a teacher of moral truths and example of holy living. I had heard it said that Jesus died for my sins. But I could not assimilate these words into anything that had personal impact, or that seemed to connect with the “mysterium” - the very real sense of awe that I felt in that sacred space. Not yet.
When I was able to make that connection, I became a Christian. For a Christian, everything centers on the man on the cross. We can never separate Jesus from the cross, as troubling as that image may be. The whole story, whether we are speaking of Jesus’ birth and incarnation, his whirlwind ministry in Galilee and Judea, even his resurrection, and how all that plays out in the pattern of Christian living - it all derives its meaning from the cross and what takes place there. To be a Christian is, as Paul says, to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
My next few posts, for which this is really an introduction, will explore the significance of the cross. For me it has been life changing, and I hope to convey why that is.