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New Meaning in the Cross

“Don’t you believe in the Trinity?” a friend asked last week, after I reacted negatively to a stranger saying that Jesus is God. I admit, I overreacted a bit, calling the latter belief idolatry, though discretely not to the person who asserted it. The person declaring Jesus their God did not affirm this in the context of Trinity: Jesus apparently stood as “Lord” all by himself in this man’s view.

I believe Jesus would be horrified. As a good Jew, he might at best have believed himself part of a chosen people, the children of God, and as a uniquely called prophet. To the person who asked about the Trinity, I rather lamely replied that I believed Jesus awakened us to the understanding that we are all beloved children of God. I added that the Trinity wasn’t devised until centuries after Jesus lived.

If I had had my wits about me, I would’ve explained further that the Trinity as three separate persons is not how I understand God. Previously on this blog I implied that early Eastern Orthodox mystics’ Trinitarian thinking was more about God’s activities than essence or personhood. To the extent we “see” the face of God, it is by God’s activities in the world. This was also the understanding of some Judaic and Islamic philosophers and mystics.

I believe we may see God in creation, compassion, and inspiration—the actions corresponding to what is designated Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. And the writer of 1 John saw God as love, and I see God there too.

The Romans thought of the first Christians as atheists because they didn’t believe in the many gods that filled up their pantheon and the many cultures they ruled. The Christian “pantheon” came to be populated in popular imagination by Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

But to me, this limits our experience of God. Every time I write about God, I realize how much I limit God. God has more than three “faces,” as evidenced by the wide variety of religions and faiths there are on our planet alone.

Remembering that in religion “myth” is—in the words of a child—“a story that is true on the inside,” the cross may be seen as a story of how “the powers that be” seek to diminish God’s activity in the world. The resurrection may be viewed as a story of how God’s activity in the world is renewed and refreshed. And Pentecost may be understood as a story of how transforming God’s presence can be, making us able to speak in the languages of strangers, share our possessions, and proclaim God’s love to the world.

Over the past year or so I’ve experienced a series of physical “issues” that remind me I am not always going to be this body. Not going anywhere soon, mind you, but I decided finally to read Sherwin B. Nuland’s 1993 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, which has sat on my bookshelves unopened since a friend left it to me.

I like Nuland’s frank admission that, though society and the medical profession like to assign “causes of death,” sometimes we simply die of old age. The body was not designed to last forever. It wears out!

And I was fascinated to read a quote from Michael Helpern, the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City: “Death may be due to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, but in every case the underlying physiological cause is a breakdown in the body’s oxygen cycle.”

This brought new meaning to the myth of the cross, that God incarnate suffered and died. Crucifixion, as is commonly known, achieves its end by suffocation: as the body weakens and sags, air flow is cut off, and the crucified dies by asphyxiation.

Many Christians have believed that Jesus or God suffered for us or in our place, which to me diminishes the fact that we too suffer and we too will die. Others of us have seen Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s suffering with us, the literal meaning of “compassion”= “to suffer with.”

Now to know that lack of oxygen is the cause of every death is to see the cross in every death—to believe that, in compassion, God is with us as we part this world.

Click Here to Link to Chris Glaser’s Blog: Progressive Christian Reflections

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