Today is Holy Cross Day. The excerpts below were taken from Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on The Last Words of Jesus From the Cross, by Richard John Neuhaus (pages 8-11). On the cross, Jesus atoned for the sins of the world.
“Atonement.” It is a fine, solid, twelfth-century Middle English word, the kind of word one is inclined to trust. Think of at-one-ment: What was separated is now at one. But after such a separation there can be no easy reunion. Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. It will not do to merely overlook the wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world, we—what we do and what we are—would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence.
Again, St. Paul says God was in Christ “not counting their trespasses against them.” Atonement is not an accountant’s trick. It is not a kindly overlooking; it is not a not counting of what must count if anything in heaven or on earth is to matter. God could not simply decide not to count without declaring that we do not count…
Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.
Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly… Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody—maybe you—did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don’t matter. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.
Trust that child’s intuition. “Unless you become as little children,” Jesus said, “you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn’t matter.
This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world.
“Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world.” Once we fully realize the awful consequential truth of that statement, the question becomes, “Now what?” The answer is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead which paid for the sins of the world and brings his life into our human flesh. The answer is the Atonement accomplished on the cross. This Atonement was not easy. It was not cheap. He paid dearly for us. This matters.