Yet this season is not entirely bleak or without hope. Warmer days replete with sunshine break up the gloom, and bird songs welcome the green buds shooting forth from once barren trees. Green grass breaks forth in clumps among the coarse and yellowed remnants of the year before. Spring is a time of death mingling with new life—the dormant world waking up with a lingering yawn.
It would be difficult to imagine a time more suited to the Lenten season, in which we remember the death of Christ, but also look forward to his glorious resurrection. It is a time when we remember the death that brings new Life. For the great paradox at the heart of Christianity is that a Death was the remedy for death. It was in losing his life that Christ brought new life to the world.
Growing up a protestant, I was taught quite young the theological idea of imputation. That is, that Christ died in our place to bear the death sentence that we deserved, and in doing so, transferred his righteousness to us. It was a grand exchange. He takes ours sins and we get credited righteousness. But most importantly, Jesus suffered and died so that we do not have to suffer and die. We escape the cross because Jesus went there in our place.
The Catholic idea of salvation is quite different. Imputation is largely foreign to Catholic theology. Instead, Catholic theology operates on the idea of participation. That is, Christ came to earth and died on the cross, not so that we could avoid death and suffering, but so that he could transform the inevitability of death and suffering from the inside out. By communion with him, by participation in his cross, we could receive eternal life.
After all, what is the fate of each and every human being? Death. It is the great equalizer. No matter how rich, famous, beautiful, or healthy we are, we will all die sooner or later. Death is the consequence of sin, for sin is a movement away from God who is Life itself. Sin is therefore by definition non-Life. It is death by its nature. And because our first parents chose sin, death is the fate of every human being.
Our enemy was gleeful at our demise. He meant for our death to be eternal, and for our physical death to be the gateway into eternal doom. But Christ came and changed all that. He embraced death and death could not hold him. He transformed it from the inside out, changing it from the gateway to eternal death to that of eternal life. In the words of the Byzantine liturgy, “He trampled down death by death.”
Put another way, Christ did not suffer and die so that we do not have to—he suffered and died so that our suffering and death could be transubstantiated into a means of life. He embraced the cross not to keep us from it, but so that our crosses could be changed from instruments of death into healing remedies that bring life.
As baptized Christians, we are members of the body of Christ. We are incorporated into him and we live in communion with him. This communion means that we share in his life—not by making some act of intellectual assent, but by living his life after him. And living his life after him requires carrying the cross after him and sharing in his death. The cross is the price of eternal life.
This is the meaning of Jesus when he said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Could there be any clearer sign that he did not come to keep us from the cross? No, rather he came to transform our crosses into the means of life.
Having been instructed by Christ himself, St. Paul understood this well. “I die daily.” “I have been crucified with Christ.” “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “The cross is foolishness to them that are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God and the Wisdom of God.” The cross was always in his heart and on his lips, for it was to him, as it is for us all, the means of eternal life.
Suffering is inevitable. To varying degrees, we will all suffer. And with a similar certainty, we will all die. It could be said that a cross lies at the heart of human existence. But the cross need not be a fate to be feared. Our Lord trampled down death by death. In the greatest paradox of all, he changed death into a means of life. What was once our doom is now our salvation.
“You must accept your cross,” said the holy St. John Vianney, “If you bear it courageously it will carry you to heaven.” This Lent, let us not fear or flee the cross, but carry it with love and with hope, as the means not of death but of eternal life.