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The Cosmic Cross

Old Testament Reading: Job 38:1-7

New Testament Reading: Colossians 1:15-20


"It is the mark of Deity to pervade everything and to extend to every part of the nature of existing things... We learn this from the cross. In shape it is divided into four parts in such a way that the four arms converge in the middle. Now He who was extended upon it at the time God's plan was fulfilled in his death is the one who binds all things to himself and makes them one. Through himself he brings the diverse natures of existing things into one accord and harmony."

                        --Gregory of Nyssa, An Address on Religious Instruction


Last week I discoursed at some length on the role of the Cross of Jesus Christ as an agent of reconciliation between the rival factions of humanity. I suggested that the cross, in New Testament parlance, reconciles both God with human beings, and human beings with each other. This last it can do only if it serves not as one more brick in the already sagging wall of humanity, but rather as the mortar enabling all the bricks to coexist in a united front. This morning, the fifth of Lent, I want to take things further and speculate for a while on the even vaster implications of the Cross of Christ, for it is a cosmic cross, vaster in scope even than the salvation of the human race. At least that is what the Epistle to the Colossians, perhaps the only thoroughly Gnostic text in the New Testament canon, tells us.

In Colossians we read that human redemption was only ­part­ of the mission of the Crucified Christ. He did that, but he went above and well beyond it, too. The text says not that he reconciled God and human beings, or even Jews with Gentiles, but that he reconciled heaven and earth themselves!  "... and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."

Wait a minute! Did I get that right? There was a gap between some heavenly entity and God? We are used to the idea that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself"--yes, this world, but some other world? That is what the text says.

Stop and think a moment just how narrow our perspective is. It is a heavy blow to the credibility of the Christian story that it is so awfully anthropocentric. That is, haven't we imagined a God who has nothing else to do but create a world to our liking, as a stage on which we can be the main attraction and he can be audience, director, and producer? In all those roles, and in the roles of Father, Son, and Spirit, we imagine God to be concerned with nothing more than his little darlings the human race.

Legend makes this the specific reason for the revolt of Lucifer. He just could not stomach the sight of the Almighty doting over his little clay bipeds--and then when God summoned the mighty Lucifer to bow down before the little homunculus--! That was too much, a straw to break an angel's back! It was this unbelievable, not to say comic, hubris that made Christianity fall with such a crash when all the discoveries since the Enlightenment dumped Homo Sapiens unceremoniously from his throne. It turned out that, far from being central in the grand scheme of things, our world was a speck of flotsam orbiting a mediocre star in a back alley of a minor galaxy. Contrary to Paul's assertion, the whole thing, the whole of human history, was done in a corner. And when fossils revealed that we were merely the latest among species, in fact an anticlimax after some mighty species that had rules the earth far longer than we have been here--well, it was too much. Christianity seemed discredited. But why? Why should these discoveries seem to debunk the Christian religion? It was not God, but humanity having made itself God, that was given the lie. Science revealed that human beings were just what the Bible had always said we were. Certainly nothing that God could be expected to waste his time on.  

"When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou carest for him?" (Psalm 8)

C.S. Lewis tried to conceive of a part of the cosmic drama of God, in other words, what else he might be up to, since Lewis realized he couldn't be spending all his time here in Hooterville. He did this in his Space Trilogy. But not by much. He still has the human struggle as pretty much central, though there is a wider audience observing it. What else there is to it, we can never know. But we must assume there is a wider frame of reference--unless of course we want to play right into the hands of Ludwig Feuerbach who said that the reason God happens to look just like us and to be busy with naught else but us, is that he ­is­ us, a projection of tiny humanity upon a big screen.

The Colossians passage tries to give us some brief glimpse into the cosmic scope of God's concern. It implies that our redemption was like unto that of a tiny Pacific atoll in the Allied victory over Japan. The islanders, maybe a hundred of them, were rightly glad to be free, but they were small potatoes. There were bigger spoils in that war. We are on the atoll. The stakes were higher than we know. How high?

I wonder, taking my cue from theologian Thomas Altizer, if per haps what Jesus Christ has done on that Cross, its arms like a sign post bristling with pointers in all directions, is something that fundamentally changes the religious universe. We are used to saying that on the Cross Christ closed the gap between us and God. But that's not exactly what we meant. The symbol of the upright cross, as Mircea Eliade said, is really a connector symbol. It is a bridge, like Jacob's ladder. It does not, in traditional terms, bring heaven and earth together. Rather it provides a path from which one can travel from earth to heaven. And that is what we do when we seek salvation from the cross.

But Altizer said what Christ did was much more radical. He did close the gap. God was in him descending to earth--and staying there! "He emptied himself" says the text in Philippians. Suppose we took that seriously. Suppose that on the cross the Transcendent, the heavenly, poured itself out into the earthly, the Sacred into the Profane. Suppose that from Good Friday onward the heavens were empty. As John Lennon said, "Above us only sky." But where did the divine glory go? The fugitive spark of the Shekinah of God is henceforth to be recognized in the world below, in the face opposite yours, in the least of the brethren of the Son of Man.

In the second century AD, the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna had the same revelation. Traditionally Buddhists had rejected the profane world as Samsara, the realm of pain and lust and death and rebirth into more of the same. They did yoga exercises to escape this rotten world of Samsara and pass on into a state of peace called Nirvana. But Nagarjuna discovered that they had all been barking up the wrong tree. Nirvana had all along been under their very feet and they had not recognized it ("Have I been with you so long Philip and still you do not know me?"). All there really is, Nagarjuna said, was the great ocean of the Sacred, and upon it, barely visible, is a bright thin film of oil called the mundane world. When one sees it aright, one does not flee it or despise it, but one sees through it and sees it shimmer with the inner glory of the Sacred. It is a sacramental view of reality.

In the Gospel of Thomas the disciples ask Jesus, "When will the Kingdom come?" He answers: "It will not come by expectation; they will not say, 'See, here,' or 'See, there.' But the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it." (saying 113). Is it possible that this is what Jesus wrought on the cross, or, in other words, may this be what we are to learn from it? That he brought the kingdom nearer to us than we are to ourselves, or that he simply revealed that it had never been anywhere else? Aren't we saying this when we acclaim Jesus the savior of the world? The Greek world used in such statements in the New Testament is cosmos. If he redeems the cosmos he buys it back, he reclaims it all as sacred space, holy ground that makes the feet shun their sandals. Holy ground that impels every bush to burst into flaming revelation.

Because of the cosmic work of Jesus Christ, heaven and earth, as the old Anglican liturgy has it, have been knit into one piece. 




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