How Does the Cross Save?

How Does the Cross Save? July 22, 2023

Catherine of Siena, from a detail of Pedro de Villegas’s _Saint Thomas Aquinas with Saint Catherine_, at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Catherine is often depicted with a crown of thorns, celebrating a mystical encounter she has with the cross.

At the center of Christian faith stands a great irony. The unwillingness of one man to save himself from a cross opens the path to salvation for all. How does this transference occur? Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) suggests that it all turns on desire.

Theories of the Cross

I have written about the mystery of the cross before. Contemplations of its saving power begin in the earliest writings of the New Testament. Think of Paul, aligning the cross with Israel’s Yom Kippur (Romans 3), or Mark (10:34) suggesting the metaphor of captivity and ransom.

By the Middle Ages, explanations of a theology of the cross had organized themselves into various theories. One of the most discussed was Anselm of Canterbury’s. Anselm (d. 1109) explained that humans, as the offenders of God’s holiness, needed to make amends. But as the offense of rejecting a holy God is infinite, finite humans were unable to. So the infinite God died the death of a finite human. The one who could make amends united himself with the one who should. The God-human satisfies the honor debt, since the infinitely holy God now receives the offering of a finite sacrifice.

Anselm’s theory can sound a little mechanical. It might seem here as if God were in a bind, needing the right lever to push to do a bit of work. But Anselm’s writing is actually much richer than this. He emphasizes God’s desire that we participate in the cross of Christ in a way that leads to our transformation. Contemplation and sacramental worship, he says, are the ways in which God’s desire for us takes shape in our desire for God.

Still, it’s easy to miss the richness, in part because the theory itself, the mechanism I suppose, is so clear. It’s easy to lift the explanation (God was both!) out of its contemplative context.

Catherine on the Work the Cross Does

For that reason, I want to offer Catherine of Siena’s commentary on Anselm as hitting just the right notes. I call it a commentary even though she does not in fact mention him. Catherine wrote 250 years later, and is most celebratory of the writings of Saint Paul, Augustine, and her Dominican hero Thomas Aquinas.

I’ve noted elsewhere a bit about her life and her engagement with Augustine in particular. For most of her short life, Catherine was unable to read or write. She learned an immense amount of theology by listening to oral readings. She wrote an impressive amount of letters and a thick mystical theological treatise almost entirely by dictation.

When she wrestles with the question of the cross’s saving power, she states the problem in an Anselmian way. “God, who is infinite, would have infinite love and infinite sorrow” for our sins. But this is not something we finite beings are able to give.

Desiring Christ

Catherine, though, does not take the simplest path out of the dilemma: God did it for us! This would mean the atonement has nothing to do with us, only something to do for us. Instead, she focuses on what we humans can do. We can participate in spiritual disciplines that bring finite sorrow, finite tears, and finite suffering.

And all of this human effort satisfies…. well, nothing, actually. What it does instead is take the focus off of ourselves and allow us to contemplate the sorrow and suffering of the God-human. Our finite desire to be in communion with the dying Jesus comes to share in the Son of God’s infinite desire for that same communion. “True contrition satisfies for sin and its penalty not by virtue of any finite suffering you may bear, but by virtue of your infinite desire.”

Our desire becomes what it is not—infinite—through what theology calls the communication of natures in Christ. He is the one who can do things humans do—love and suffer finitely—in the way that only God can do them. So his human love and suffering for us is also infinite. By loving attachment to Christ, along with all the sacrificial acts and sorrow that finite love entails, we find that our desire has gone infinite. Without ceasing to be human, we love in a Godlike way. In this way, Catherine says, “God was made human, and humanity was made God.”

The Way of Perfection

This contemplation of the work of the cross comes at the beginning of a chapter of her mystical treatise sometimes called “The Way of Perfection.” A later chapter metaphorizes the cross as a bridge–a way, still–that we walk across. The way of perfection, for Catherine, is not a lifelong attempt to overcome our finitude and human frailty. Instead, it is about letting our humanity walk in love alongside the one human who can make us Godlike. And for her, the centerpiece of this attachment is the story of the cross.

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