Part 3: The Cruciform Icon through a Low Christology Lens
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.“
– John 15:12-13
As most folks surely know, orthodox christian doctrine states that Jesus the Christ was both fully God and fully Human. Paying attention to how these two natures interpenetrated within his life is the source of both the strangeness and the ingenuity and imagination of the Christian faith. For though he is now worshiped as the Son of God, what Jesus most often called himself was the Son of Man – the human one.
From being born as an infant among animals in a stable, to eating fish and drinking wine, to weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus was not only a divine being but a deeply human man – a man whose divinity was couched in his humanity and whose humanity was couched in his divinity. A man whose life was spent reaching out to those who were considered outcasts by the community – the sick, the alien, the oppressed, and even the oppressors – and welcoming them into something more inclusive. A man who loved children and pointed to them as examples, who spent his time healing those who were hurting and prophesying against those structures which kept them from wholeness. A man whose life revealed something about the Divine life, and nowhere more so than when it came to a close – a paradox within a paradox – at the crucifixion.
Perhaps nothing from Scripture reveals Jesus’ humanness more than his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he wept and pleaded with his Father that he might not have to be subjected to the all too human fate of death. And yet, this human longing is what provided the ground for the Divine in him to become manifest. For so intertwined was his humanity with the Divine life that he surrendered his will to God’s, realizing that to be fully faithful to God’s mission, to be fully faithful to his mission as Christ, he needed to be so committed to fearless loving that death could not hold him back, nor could imperial powers silence him. In aligning his human will with the Divine will, in emptying himself in order to be filled with the Spirit, he submitted to death – all the while praying for the forgiveness of those who killed him.
Jesus’ life, culminating in this moment of self-sacrifice on the Cross, is considered by Christians to be a historical revelation of God’s nature. In the context of the whole Gospel story, the Icon of Christ Crucified reveals that God:
– can be experienced in the depths of materiality, even in so particular a form as the body of a certain Palestinian Jewish man (incarnation)
– that God’s fundamental orientation is towards connection with humanity and creation (relationality)
– that God is revealed in the surrendering of one’s own will and desires for the pursuit of a greater purpose (kenosis: self-emptying)
– and that God is a being who would willingly face and be subjected to limitation, evil, and death without fighting back (non-violence) in order to share the message of inclusion, healing, and unconditional mercy and grace with humanity (love).
This is the significance of the Cruciform Icon when seen through the lens of a low Christology, which is concerned with the life and death of the historical Jesus. God Himself is so invested in coming into His creation, in relating to and sharing in the life of His creatures, in communicating his message of inclusion, love, and justice to the world, and in personifying His message in His character, that he willing bore the full brunt of human evil, as a human being, to the point of torture and death – all while turning the other cheek. This is the depth, and nature, of God’s love for all things.
Now we will move on to the lens of a high Christology, which is more concerned with the cosmic elements of the Christ concept, and consider how the Cruciform Icon can be understood from this more heady perspective. And to start, of course, we have to turn to that bastion of high christology, the Book of John.