Confronting God´s Oppressive Love
Author: H. Jonathan Flemings, L.C. | Source: Catholic.net
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:8)
“I just don’t think people like it when they walk into a Church. That man, tortured to death on a cross, is always the first thing they see. It’s just depressing!”
Half of the café tables on the cobblestone sidewalk were still unoccupied, and the greyish light of the overcast Roman sky was not yet strong enough to cast shadows. Carlos, my twenty-one-year-old acquaintance from Madrid, is an atheist. The enormous lines at the Vatican Museum that morning had quickly convinced us our time would be better spent talking art and philosophy over coffee than killing time in a kilometer-long queue.
As always happens, art and philosophy led to faith not far into our first cappuccino.
“I mean, why do you Catholics impose that on people. Life is more than just suffering,” continued Carlos.
“What you aren’t saying or seeing is that all the suffering you see in a crucifix is suffering for love. Imagine a dad who gives his life to save his children from a disaster. Or someone like Maximilian Kolbe who offered his life in place of another man in Auschwitz. It’s actually not so much about the suffering at all,” I replied, trying to find a convincing answer to a question that made me uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Carlos and I ended up conversing for six hours straight, soaking in the Mediterranean light and that fascinating combination of city sounds and smells on the backdrop of ancient ruins and baroque architecture in a corner of Rome’s Piazza Argentina. Over the course of the morning, the subject of our musings meandered to and fro, and our coffees were replaced by beers. It was one of those encounters you never forget. Years later, I still find myself returning to the impressions the cool morning light and the exceptional candor left on my mind and heart. And the question of the crucifix remains unresolved.
This may be strange to some, and perhaps it is difficult to understand. I confess I am not sure how universal my own experience is, but when I look at the crucifix, at times, I think, “Can you tone it down a little bit? Why does your love have to be so intense?” Love calls for love. God’s becoming a man and being tortured to death to prove his love for me makes me feel entirely inadequate. I can’t love like that! So how can I really accept being loved that much?
It would be far more comfortable if God’s love fit a more human measure. It would be easy if it were just a passing sort of affection. But it is not. It is an overwhelming, deadly earnest love that brooks no compromise. He gave his blood—all of it. And he gave it willingly and eagerly. He was not gritting his teeth and thinking, “You really better make this worth it!” I was not worth it. Neither were you. But since he gave his life for me, my worth has never been the same.
Carlos’ objection is legitimate. It is hard to understand or, better said, impossible to understand. Inhuman love, Divine love, can’t be reduced to human concepts. Gazing on the man on the cross for extended periods of time is the only way to begin to grasp his meaning and message. As his blood trickles from the tree and the slow and difficult labor of his breathing reaches your ears, you begin to see the ineffable mystery. It begins to make sense—in a very literal way—of this existence so often lacking in explanations. Contemplation answers the question that cannot be answered with mere words.
“They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:37)