That Hideous Beauty of Calvary

We have a crisis if the cross loses its offense in our eyes. If we’re not offended by the cross, we’re in grave danger of losing the comfort and hope of the cross.

Paul writes, “If I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” (Galatians 5:11). Meaning, if I preach a righteousness through good works, then the cross is no longer necessary. The message of the cross — that we are sinful beyond saving unless God intervenes on our behalf — is softened or silenced by false gospels. The true gospel is the most offensive news ever announced: You are wicked and without hope in and of yourself. Your best efforts to be good are worthless — the worst kind of failure and rebellion.

So the offensiveness can be removed, but when it’s stripped away, the goodness always leaves with it.

A Beautiful Execution

It’s a stunning thing, isn’t it, that we grow as comfortable as we do with the cross? It was an execution — like being hung by your neck from a tree or electrocuted in a chair or injected with lethal chemicals.

And yet we wear the cross as a pretty necklace around our neck, or put it in bright colors on our bumpers, or doodle it on our worship folders — different sizes, different colors, maybe decorating it with our favorite verse in cursive. Functionally — on our necklaces, t-shirts, and coffee mugs — the shape of the cross is really more like a beautiful flower or a shooting star or a soft bunny rabbit, than it is like a punishing weapon of torture and death. That’s what a cross is, remember.

“If we’re not offended by the cross, we’re in grave danger of losing its comfort and hope.”

It’s not wrong to love the cross. In fact, we must. We just need to be reminded regularly of the horror and gravity of what happened at Calvary — the betrayal and murder of the Son of God for us. If the death of God himself — the crucified Son of God — does not continue to be horrific and offensive in our imaginations, then our faith, our hope, and our theology have lost their clarity and balance.

Our souls need to be undone by the cross in order to feel safe at the cross.

The Cross and ISIS

Think for a minute, what if Jesus had died another way? How comfortable would we be with that imagery? What if instead of being crucified, Jesus had been beheaded by a group like ISIS? It could have happened. John the Baptist was executed like that. What if Jesus had been beheaded? What would we wear then? What would we doodle?

ISIS’s rampage across the Middle East is gruesome, horrendous, outrageous, sickening — brothers and sisters in Christ violently, seemingly meaninglessly slaughtered because of their faith. Thirty more killed just this week. It is awful, disgusting evil. It’s excruciatingly hard to look at the pictures or videos online.

So why do we treat a cross differently today than we might a severed head? Why is the cross — this picture — so comfortable for us?

A Jarring and Joy-Filled Marriage

In part, it’s because we know the whole story — and it’s a good story. We know what happens three days later — the glorious emptiness of a well-guarded tomb.

Another part, though, is that we forget. In the peace of Easter morning, we forget the war on Good Friday — the infinite price that was paid, the worst sin ever committed, the execution of the Christ. The Son of God was nailed to wood like a wall decoration, and left to bleed and suffocate to death.

“Our souls need to be undone by the cross in order to feel safe at the cross.”

Jesus doesn’t downplay the horrors of his death — “they will mock me and spit on me, and flog me and kill me” (Mark 10:34) — but he also invites us to come find safety, rest, and life at that cross.

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

For us, the horror of Calvary — and it is horrible — is forever married to the hope of Calvary. Jesus endured the cross — betrayed, mocked, spit on, flogged, pierced, murdered — to say that you are broken. But with broken body and spilled blood, he also says that God loves you, and that he’s made a cross-shaped way for you to be made free, made whole, made pure.

The Cry of the Crossbeams

This good news — the light of the world — only comes through the horrific darkness of the cross. This kind of sacrifice is the only solution to the brokenness in us and the brokenness around us. Light through darkness. Joy through sorrow. Love through sacrifice. Life through death. This is the message buried in those two hideous crossbeams.

Only the cross can pay the debt we owe — our Savior’s body nailed to a tree in our place. Our sin against God cost God that much. The cross declares that no evil in this world can compare with our evil. Our offenses against God are the most offensive ever committed. The horror of Calvary communicates the depth and severity of our depravity.

And the beauty of God’s love at the cross surpasses any other beauty we’ve ever seen — better, more beautiful than the first days of summer in Minnesota or the quiet lakes hidden in and around the Rocky Mountains or the blue waves crashing on a Southern California beach. The cross is the most offensive and most beautiful event and news we’ve ever known.

But we have to be offended by the cross for it to ever be truly beautiful.