Orthodox Christians are celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which was last Saturday (September 14). In this reflection, Fr Steven Kostoff discusses how Islam struggles with the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus, and what that means for Christians who worship Jesus as the Son of God, and venerate the Cross.
Struggling with the Scandal of the Cross
by Fr Steven Kostoff — Orthodox Christian Meditations — 9/16/2013
On September 14, we began our festal celebration of the Feast of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, to give the Feast its full title. This feast has a full octave (Leavetaking on September 21), thus stressing the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives. It is up to us to maintain our concentration on the Cross throughout this week, and hopefully to remain vigilant in our approach to the Cross in our personal prayer life, including the veneration of the Cross within our households. To further stress our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent – the Adoration of the Cross – and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1. And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.
It was the Apostle Paul who already experienced the rejection of the Cross within his lifetime; and who thus anticipated this rejection throughout the centuries, when he very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in this well-known text:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I COR. 1:23-24)
This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (I COR. 1:26)
The “scandal” for the Jews who were contemporary with the Apostle Paul would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified. The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, for it was “the Lord of glory” who was crucified according to the Apostle Paul. As the biblical scholar Richard Kugelman put it:
The gospel message shocks Jewish nationalism and Greek intellectualism. The Jews expected and demanded signs, i.e. spectacular miracles that showed divine intervention. They looked for a messiah who would inaugurate their nation’s sovereignty over the Gentiles by a display of miraculous power (Mt. 12:38; 16:4; Jn. 4:48; 6:30-31). The Greeks searched for “wisdom,” i.e., philosophies that pretended to give a satisfactory explanation of man and the cosmos.
God, in and through Christ, transformed what was shameful, weak, lowly and despised – a crucified man – into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I COR. 1:30) The entire passage of I COR. 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross. This is clearly the case with Islam. Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an – even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation from the Gospel According to St. Luke! (Qur’an, 3:45-47) However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts: “yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” (4:156-159).
The Muslims believe that someone else – a figure unidentified by the Qur’an – was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself. The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote: “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.” Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God. Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died, clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion. If there is anything agreed upon today among New Testament scholars — believers and skeptics alike — it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30’s of the Christian era. This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.
There is more than a passing resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism from the Gk. word meaning “to appear.” In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross. St. Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception, early in the 2nd century:
Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died … He was truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up … (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)
St. Ignatius very poignantly asks: what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion? Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?
But if, as some godless men – that is, unbelievers – say, his suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight with wild beasts? Then I die in vain. Then I lie about the Lord. (Trallians, 10)
Although, as Christians, we “venerate” the Cross, we do not “worship” the Cross. We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation. Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory.” Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God. He is the fulfillment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfillment of the Law. (MATT. 5:17) We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God … Who without change didst become man and was crucified.” The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory,” an “invincible shield.” In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we
Kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer. (Small Vespers)
Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote respect, tolerance, and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions. I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory. This should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness – “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (ACTS. 4:12) – but actually demonstrates our loyalty to Christ who never compels but invites with outstretched arms upon the Cross.