We would like to think about love in the context of the Cross, although the topic is probably beyond us: issues of Christology enter into the discussion, issues we would here like to avoid since at the moment we are not tuned in to the writings of St Maximos the Confessor.
Let us look at Jesus Christ in the hours leading up to his Crucifixion. We know that he prayed that ‘this cup pass from me; yet not my will but your will be done’. Luke, a doctor, records that Jesus’ sweat dropped like great drops of blood to the ground. This is evidently medically possible and on occasion recorded. It is clearly a sign of great distress. So we have a situation in which Jesus Christ, true man and true God, goes to his death in great love for Man but in great distress.
We know that before the Crucifixion Jesus insisted that he be allowed to wash the feet of Peter and also washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas. We also know that Jesus was greatly distressed that one of his disciples, Judas, would betray him. The fact that someone would betray him Jesus finds quite distressful despite being completely dispassionate. There must be something in the nature of things that makes betrayal by someone you love particularly painful. For it must be said that there is no reason at all for us to believe that Judas was treated any worse by Jesus than the other Apostles: there is nothing to indicate that Judas was justified in any way in betraying Jesus. So this betrayal was one of the arrows in Jesus’ heart during his Crucifixion.
St Paul remarks somewhere that in this God shows his love for us, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. In the same passage, Paul remarks that one might dare to die for a ‘good man’, clearly implying that humanly speaking no one would die for a sinner.
What does Paul mean? What does he mean by ‘good man’? Clearly a ‘good man’ is a person who is ethically good. However, Paul was a Jew, not a Greek philosopher, and it is still not exactly clear what he here intends by ‘good man’. What he seems to mean is that humanly speaking someone might dare to lay their life down for a person whom they perceive to be good, although even that would not be certain. However, God commends his love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners—by definition, not ‘good men’—Christ died on the Cross for us.
Now Jesus himself, despite his anguish and distress, clearly had this love. This is what someone has called a ‘Gospel love’, a Christian love. It is not a love that derives from the flesh, but from God, of whom John says that ‘God is love.’ Since the love of God has been poured out into our hearts in Baptism, we too have this love. However, we are a bit like what Paul is talking about: we might show this Gospel love—we might dare to show this Gospel love—to someone who is good. But as Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, even the tax collectors and sinners do the same. The problem comes when it comes time to show this love to our betrayer, to the sinner, to the man or woman who commits an injustice against us. Then we might be found to be imitating Christ on the Cross. This is the road of Orthodox spirituality: to cultivate this Gospel love.
In Corinthians, in the famous passage, St Paul explains this Gospel love apophatically, by saying what it is not. For we can never say what God is, we can only experience God. To the extent that we have this love through our Baptism, we experience this love, especially in the Divine Liturgy, although perhaps only ‘as in a glass darkly’. Hence we all have an inner criterion of this Gospel love when we face someone who has betrayed us. We too in our trials and temptations are able to exercise this love, but to the extent that we have not been purified from our passions (‘the old man’), this love is difficult for us to exercise if the opposite party is not a ‘good man’—a person whom we find lovable in the ordinary course of events.
What we would like to do is look at Christ on the Cross through the prism of this love, to look at his Crucifixion as an act of love for us. Since Jesus was true Man and true God and since, as St Basil the Great teaches us, as Man he was completely dispassionate (‘divinized’) from the moment of his conception, Christ does not have the problem of passions of the flesh interfering with his exercise of this love. His anguish before and during his Crucifixion is not a matter of unpurified human passions but a matter of basic human nature.
If we find the person to be good, it is easy for us to overcome the sense of betrayal—perhaps they are our sister whom we love dearly—but if we do not naturally find the person to be good, then our passions make it difficult for us to exercise this love and we have to work at it. In this we are different and distant from Christ on the Cross. But we also know that that is precisely the road of spiritual ascesis: actively keeping the commandments of God is what purifies us from our passions, especially the passions of soul such as pride. So on the one hand whenever we are treated unjustly we are faced with a choice to love or not—whether to make the effort to exercise a Gospel love or not—and at the same time we realize that the very act of forcing ourselves to love the other person purifies us from the passion that is impeding that love.
Christ on the Cross is that Gospel love incarnate.