Thanks to “the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and His transformation of human existence from within,” humankind “can engage the ruins of its existence” (Delp, The Cross – The Mystery of God and the Way of Life for Humanity). Alfred Delp, SJ, whom the Nazis would execute on February 2, 1945, scribbled this thought prior to giving a retreat in 1943 to his parishioners on the meaning of the Cross. This Jesuit-martyr’s insight on the manner of Christian discipleship can assist us on our Lenten pilgrimage, which entails making those difficult human journeys of becoming fully human ever anew within the ruins of our lives. We know this journey is achievable because Jesus has made it before us. In taking this path, he breaks the bonds of sin, and destroys the shame that insists we are unworthy. For Delp, such spiritual pilgrimage, as noted in his retreat, is deemed the “Way of the Cross.” The retreat talk survives as a rough outline, and represents the young priest’s attempt to explore the salvific meaning of the Cross in the midst of his country’s descent into sin. The way of the Cross tells us that we can become like God only when we enter the path of the Son.
Delp starts by noting that the Cross confronts the sins of the world and “touches the heart of our lives.” This Cross is “one of the holy, untouchable symbols of humanity,” and refers to “a deeper reality and to the order of life.” With the next train of thought, Delp lays out the cost of discipleship that the Cross represents. The “way of the Cross represents the decision for Christ,” because there can be no neutral relationship with Christ. The young pastor tells his parishioners that their decision to follow Christ is not contingent on whether the symbol of the cross is beautiful. Delp points out that Thomas More, who was held captive in the Tower of London, drew crosses on the wall. Other English martyrs used wood and stalks to assemble the sign of the Cross on the floor of the prison in the Tower of London. For Delp, these depictions of the Cross came from authentic realization and reveal a more genuine commitment to faith than some famous masterpieces.
Delp emphasizes that we must “speak of this Cross, we accept it, because it is the sign of our lives and because our lives are subjected to the way of the Cross.” This way consists of suffering because of the sins of humankind: “There will be losses and hurts, but the way out consists of sacrifices.” The path demands an acknowledgment of and engagement with, not an avoidance of, broken and sinful reality. For Delp, the Cross of Christ enables individuals to confront sins, both their own and others, by taking on their personal cross as a sacrifice to participate in the redemption of the world. The divine initiative of God in Christ indicates that someone undergirds our lives, including our struggles: “Faith in the Cross of Calvary is faith in a God who is with humankind right down to the cellar of creaturely existence. How different life looks when God has carried us—an experience of solidarity.” The Cross is God’s commitment to save powerless humankind, mired in iniquity and sin. It is the overcoming of powerlessness and iniquity.
Delp tells his parishioners that God’s faithfulness to His creation, as represented by the Cross, irrevocably binds Him to human persons and ultimately opens up and safeguards for persons a path beyond their sins. The Cross breaks through the prison walls of fate; Christ breaks through the slavery of irresolvable sins. We are able to take up our own crosses and make the way of the Cross, because iniquity and sin have “been overcome and because God has met us in our fate.” For Delp, in the Cross our forsakenness is defeated and “a first ray of meaning and sight has emerged. The passion for the Cross is a passion both for God and for ourselves.”To clarify what Delp means by engaging sin and evil as the path to human flourishing, I turn to his reflection on the Sacrament of Penance (Delp, Collected Writings III: Homilies and Speeches). In the autumn of 1940, Delp gave a series of sermons on the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Addressing the Sacrament of Penance, he speaks of the need for honest acknowledgment of sin and evil. He refers to a few examples from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ariadne’s Lament to illustrate the ways in which people minimize the phenomenon of sin and thereby block themselves from redemption. The path of the Christian is different; it is the way of penance. He writes that penance leads us back to the “underground” of human existence, where sin is to be redeemed.” Here, the human person can encounter a merciful God whose offer of forgiveness can make “their nights, their falls, their sins” part of the condition for the possibility of salvation. Thus, one can find one’s identity and purpose in the face of darkness and death because God has entered into human history with all its misery and wretchedness. One can conform oneself to a God who finds “community with humankind” in its most difficult situations.
The love that comes forth from the Cross invites us to enter into a penitential movement that is at once and the same time so personal and so beyond our own imagining that we sense that we are being impelled from feeling being resigned to fate to participating in God’s providence. We recognize our limitations, which manifests in the graces of shame. This is not a masochistic guilt trip, but rather the experience of conversion in the presence of a merciful God. Without the recognition of our darkness and the desire to repent, we remain deaf and blind to God. Encountering the Cross and taking up our own personal crosses, liberates us from ourselves for God and for others. Within this dynamism, we are not guaranteed that the path we have been invited to trek on will turn out right. Indeed, we are called to follow and be with Jesus at a deeper level. And Jesus promises that he will be present to us in our engagement with human poverty. As such, we can reach out to others in their brokenness as Christ reaches out to us.
What is humbling about the Christian view of reality is the honest acceptance of the disfigurement of human life by sin, as revealed by our personal and social relationships. Yet, as we walk through those wildernesses of emptiness we encounter an inviolable relationship with human persons: God’s love in Christ for each one of us. The way the Cross is more than just about becoming oneself in relation to Christ, but allowing Christ to give Himself to oneself and within oneself in a fallen world for the sake of others. Such is a love that creates, sustains, and redeems. The love that embraces the way of the Cross does not ignore destructiveness of sin or belittles its consequences. Rather it manifests a love that makes a pilgrimage through the ruins of humanity in order to attest a love that is stronger than sin, a hope that refuses to be overwhelmed by despair. As we set to embark on our Lenten pilgrimage, let us to testify with our lives that love is beyond hatred and hope is beyond despair, because Christ has met us at the cellars of our existence and has undergirds our lives. The mystery of the Cross that calls Jesus invites us also.
Peter Nguyen, SJ is a Jesuit priest and an instructor of theology at Creighton University. He is finishing a PhD in Theology at Regis College, University of Toronto. Theology and jiu-jitsu are his hobbies. His real job involves hearing confessions and rooting for the Chicago Cubs.
If this Lent reflection struck a chord with you, then you will also want to read Squishy New Atheist Pieties Miss Gospel Love’s Ruthless Demands.
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