Monday, April 12, 2010

On Glorying in the Cross

So this morning I was looking around in Thomas Aquinas' biblical commentaries to see if I'd find anything cool. Last night I was at a hymnsing, and we sang the awesome hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts, with the famous second stanza:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

I've always found that to be really deep and moving, and anyway the hymnal listed Galatians 6:14 ("May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world") as a Scripture reference, so those of us at the hymnsing spent a bit of time talking about the verse. And like I said, this morning I was looking through Aquinas' commentaries and I decided to check out what he had to say about the verse. And lemme tell you, when I got to his comments on it in his fourth lecture on Galatians 6... to say I was moved wouldn't do it justice. Here, read for yourself:

Notice that where the worldly philosopher felt shame, there the Apostle found his treasure; what the former regarded as foolish became for the Apostle wisdom and glory, as Augustine says. For each person glories in that through which he is considered great. Thus a person who regards himself as great in his riches, glories in them; and so on for other things. For one who regards himself to be great in nothing but Christ glories in Christ alone. But the Apostle was such a one; hence he says, "I live now not I, but Christ lives in me" [Galatians 2:20].

Accordingly he glories in nothing but Christ and particularly in the Cross of Christ, and this because in it are found all the things about which men usually glory. For some glory in the friendship of the great, such as of kings and princes; and this friendship the Apostle found most of all in the Cross, because there an obvious sign of divine friendship is shown: "But God commends his charity towards us, because when as yet we were sinners according to the time, Christ died for us" [Romans 5:8]. For nothing shows his mercy to us as much as the death of Christ. Hence Gregory: "O inestimable love of charity! To redeem the servant, he delivered his Son."

Again, some glory in knowledge; and of this the Apostle found a more excellent one in the Cross: "For I judged not myself to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified" [1 Corinthians 2:2], for in the Cross is the perfection of all law and the whole art of living well. Again, some glory in power; and of this the Apostle found the highest form through the Cross: "The word of the cross to them, indeed, that perish is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God" [1 Corinthians 1:18]. Again, some glory in newly-found freedom; and this the Apostle obtained through the Cross: "Our old man is crucified with him that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer" [Romans 6:6].

Again, some glory into being accepted into some famous fellowship; but by the Cross of Christ, we are accepted into the heavenly ranks: "Making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth and the things that are in heaven" [Colossians 1:20]. Again, some glory in the triumphal banners of conquest; but the Cross is the triumphal ensign of Christ's conquest over the demons: "And despoiling the principalities and powers, he has exposed them confidently in open show, triumphing over them in himself" [Colossians 2:15]; "Blessed be the wood by which justice comes" [Wisdom 14:7].

...Wow. I never really thought this deeply about just the first portion of that one verse, but it's amazing how much it can hold! Think about it: anything I could possibly justifiably boast in, I'll find more of it in the crucified and risen Christ than I ever could apart from him.

Are connections in high places the sort of thing I'd be likely to boast about? Why sell out to the world, when by being a Christian I have a direct hotline to the omnipotent God, and in fact have been given the indwelling Spirit of sonship?

How about prestigious club membership? In Christ I'm part of the communion of saints and am destined to have intimate fellowship with the cherubim and seraphim; what country club can compete with that?

What about triumphant victory? Christ beat the tar out of the powers of darkness, both on the cross and in his resurrection, and he shares that victory with us! It may be lost on me under this mortal veil of darkness, but the victory that I can personally claim through Christ makes all the conquests of Alexander the Great look like a mere pittance.

How about liberty and freedom? Some people might boast in being free and unoppressed in this human realm; that was probably far more the case in Paul's day, when slavery was yet endemic and a slave who bought his freedom really could have something to boast about. But how tiny that seems next to the idea of being set free from sin!

Or what about knowledge? Some people - that'd be me, folks - are inclined to boast in having a lot of knowledge about this or that. And those truly are good things, gifts of God... but may I never lose sight of the fact that not only do I have those treasures of earthly knowledge, but in Christ I additionally have knowledge of sacred mysteries revealed to the people of God, mysteries unattainable by my human faculties apart from grace. And that knowledge of those mysteries - mysteries like the fact that God's very nature is self-giving love, that God's character is cruciform - is so much greater than, say, verifying the existence of the Higgs boson or cataloguing the lost works from the Library of Alexandria or solving Fermat's Last Theorem or resolving the ontological status of mathematical objects. (And trust me that all of those things would be pretty cool achievements.)

Or what about wealth? There are a lot of people who could boast about that. But in Christ are all the unsearchable riches of God! How idiotic would I be to gain the wealth of all the universe and miss out on the vastly greater treasure and even lose my soul?

So if I know all this, why am I so tempted to boast in everything else? In all my natural capacities and gifts, in my connections, in my accomplishments... why am I so tempted to make such a huge fuss about myself and my works, and so little fuss about Jesus Christ and him crucified? Like Thomas Aquinas goes on to say, "a person who glories in something treasures it and desires to make it known".

O Lord, may I - like your servant Paul - learn to glory first and foremost in nothing but you and your cross, so that I may treasure your sacrifice above all else and above all else yearn with an undying passion to declare it to all people. Amen.

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