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A Sermon from Sherborne
‘Done on the Cross’: meditations for Holy Week 2020
5) Christ the Magnet
In my meditation address, on Christ the Ransom, I mentioned Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. His last years saw a great surge of activity and vigour in theology and the work of theologians, spearheaded not in theology’s traditional home, the essentially conservative world of the monastic cloister, but in the cathedral schools of Europe’s cities. And one of their most famous, or infamous, products was Peter Abelard.
Most people have heard of the love affair between Abelard, Master of the School at Notre Dame in Paris, and Heloïse, and of their secret marriage, of Abelard’s castration by Heloïse’s uncle and his accomplices, and of Heloïse being forced to enter a convent to lead a life for which she felt no true vocation. Their surviving love letters have been printed and reprinted time and again.
Less well known are Abelard’s theological views, which caused him to be denounced as a heretic by the formidable Bernard of Clairvaux, who had entered the Cistercian Order under Abbot Stephen Harding – once a pupil or novice here at Sherborne Abbey – and helped him turn it into one of the
most flourishing in Europe. Bernard sent his complaints direct to the Pope, and in 1140 Innocent II condemned Abelard as a heretic, forbade him from writing and himself set up a stake in St Peter’s for the burning of Abelard’s books.
One of those books was his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which contained an outline of his understanding of the Cross, of Christ’s atoning work. It was only a draft, which Abelard hoped to develop in a later work, but never did. But what is clear is that he rejected all the interpretations of the Cross which we have been considering – that on the Cross a battle was fought with evil or a ransom paid for our sin, that Christ took our place to bear our punishment or that he was a necessary sacrifice to turn aside the wrath of God.
Abelard’s starting point was that God could have forgiven us without sending his Son to die had he chosen to do so. Strictly speaking, the Cross wasn’t necessary. Nevertheless, it happened. So what was God’s intention in sending his Son as man? Surely it must have been to reveal his love for us – in what Jesus taught, in what he said, in what he suffered, in what he was. And this wonderful demonstration of God’s love for us, revealed in Christ stretching out loving arms for us on the Cross, must have been meant to awaken in us a similar love for God who first loved us. As he put it:
What then is our redemption? We are justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God, because by the life and death of His Son He has so bound us to Himself that love so kindled will shrink from nothing for His sake. Our redemption is that supreme devotion kindled in us by the Passion of Christ: this it is that frees us from the slavery of sin and gives us the liberty of the sons of God, so that we do His will from love and not from fear. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance: we grieve to have sinned against God, from love and not from fear, less because He is just than because He is merciful.
For Peter Abelard, therefore, the achievement of the Cross is to reveal and proclaim God’s love in Jesus’s life and death, a love which has the power to transform us and redeem us. As the Bishop of Salisbury so often puts it, God first engages with us and then He changes us – and the most engaging thing about God is his love, revealed on the Cross. The Cross is the magnetic centre of our faith, drawing us to Him.
Once again, this is a thoroughly Biblical image. St John records these words of Jesus: ‘And I, if I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself.’ And John adds, ‘This he said to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ (John 12: 32-33). No one familiar with Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion will forget his use of Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so shall the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
This understanding of the Cross has always been criticised, from St Bernard on, as not allowing Christ’s death to have achieved anything in itself, objectively. It is wholly subjective, relying on Christ’s death invoking a response of penitence and love in us. But is not this how all sacraments work? What is the eucharist if there are no eyes of faith to see beyond just bread and wine? What is marriage if there are no eyes of love to see beyond the legal contract? Charles Causley gets to the heartbreak of our lack of response in his poem inspired by a crucifix in Normandy:
I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain you will not obey.
I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
I am the city where you will not stay,
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,
I am the lover whom you will betray,
I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.
For all his impatient failure to see the truths in the understandings of the Cross he rejected, Abelard saw this great truth when most of the Church was blind, that the Cross, ultimate sign of man’s hatred, is also the ultimate sign of God’s love. And many waters cannot quench that love. It is stronger than death. And still it has its ancient power to draw us to the Crucified. And if for that belief Peter Abelard is a heretic, then so am I!
Let us pray
look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen