For many walk as enemies of the Cross of Christ … (Philippians 3:18)
We have entered Holy Week and begun our intense contemplation of the Passion and Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The season of Lent is ending. But this reading from Philippians presses upon us precisely as our time of denial draws near to its appointed end, to its climax and completion in the Triduum. At the very end of our labors of self-denial, when we look forward anxiously to the joys of Easter, we are forced to ask a most difficult question: “Who are the enemies of the cross of Christ?”
This verse has a long history in Christian polemics and is often used against those “out there” who would deny or lessen (or be thought to deny or lessen) the sufferings of Jesus and the Incarnation of the Word. But we should be careful about such an application. It is all too easy to fix our gaze on some other group of people, rather than directing the critique somewhere closer to home. Perhaps the real question is: Are we ourselves the enemies of the Cross? And, if this is true, how do we live in hostility to our Lord’s Passion?
I doubt that many readers of this blog deny the sufferings of Christ or his Incarnation. But the verse’s referent is not directed towards confessional statements, but at moral actions. “Many walk as enemies of the Cross …”
It is the whole sphere of living, working, and being that is the aim of Paul’s critique. We are constituted as enemies of the cross when we would deny the exemplary activity of self-denial present in the Lord’s Incarnation and Crucifixion, evident in the relinquishment of pride which characterized Paul’s apostolate, and exhibited by the saints of every age who suffered for the life of the one body. For our redemption was not secured or maintained by the avoidance of suffering, the preservation of personal estate, or the exaltation of the self. The Body of Christ has been a body of suffering from the beginning.
I believe there is an ecclesial application to all such verses. That is, I want us to ask whether we have set ourselves up as enemies of the Cross, precisely in those actions which relate to our common life together as Christians. In what ways have we avoided the suffering which establishes community? Have we drawn back from fellowship with those different from us? Have we attempted to preserve our own identity through a putatively holy separation? Have we regarded our form of life as an object precious to us, “something to be grasped” (harpagmon; Phil. 2:6)?
This is an especially serious question in the aftermath of the struggles of recent years. I think we all have a sense of exhaustion stemming the effort needed to wrestle for the maintenance of the bond of peace, not least while we’ve encountered hostility and aggression from our closest neighbors in faith.
At times, it seems that our struggle has accomplished even less than the most pessimistic critic might have projected years ago. And so we find it hard to summon up the energy for ongoing unity. We retreat to our confessional, liturgical, and theological ghettoes. And thus we walk as enemies.
But we cannot give up the struggle for unity. Christ our God did not suffer that we might sit in passivity or retreat into comfort. In the Church, the coming times will be difficult, sweaty, disappointing, and frustrating. Our efforts may often seem useless. But our work is not without an end, the sight of which will be glorious. Christ’s kenosis did not culminate in death, but in resurrection.
We must manifest now the full pattern of the Passion of our Lord, remembering that “our citizenship is in the heavens, whence also we expect a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humiliation into the same form as the body of his glory, according to the power that enables him to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).
He will transform the body of each of us, for he will transform the body of his Church.
The featured image is Eugène Delacroix’s “Le Jour ni l’Heure” (1835). It is licensed under Creative Commons.