The Scandal and Idiocy of the Cross

Recently, Christian apologist and author Justin Brierly wrote about the surprising influx of converts to Christianity, particularly from the New Atheist movement. It is something for which we can thank and glorify God. However, there are some cautions that we should keep in mind, some of which he mentions in his article. Since we Orthodox Christians celebrate the Sunday of the Cross this weekend, I want to address those cautions by beginning with the words of St. Paul:

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
(1 Cor. 1:23)

In Greek, the word for “stumbling block” is skandalon, which is where we get the English word scandal. A skandalon was a trap that ensnares the foot of a creature that unknowingly walks on it. A foothold trap is one such device. Such a trap is staked to the earth and immobilizes the trapped creature.

St. Paul says that the crucified Messiah is a skandalon for the Jews. Why would that be?

Most Jews were sufficiently pleased with their sacrificial system and temple worship. They eagerly awaited their Messiah in hopes that he would be a great warrior who would conquer the earth and force all Gentiles to submit to Jewish dominion.

Instead of bringing them political victories, our Lord chose to die on a Cross, executed by the very Roman overlords that they wanted Him to overthrow. Their focus on political victory acted as a foothold trap, pegging them to earthly ambitions, and spiritually immobilizing them.

When we want God to be something He is not, when we want Him to serve us politically, to grant us worldly fame, power, or wealth, then He presents us with the Cross. Even when we promise Him that we want these political victories to turn people to God and move our country in a moral direction, He beckons to us from the Cross.

Come, join me,” He says, “take up your cross and follow Me,” that is, “follow My example. Let your worldly desires and ambitions be crucified, for you are not greater than your Lord.”

The crumbling of Western culture has caused many people to flock to traditional forms of Christianity. We Orthodox have seen a huge rise in inquirers and converts. However, the Orthodox Church does not exist to embolden political revolutions or act as a stronghold against Leftist politics. Instead, the Orthodox Church exists to point us to Christ crucified, to invite us to die with Him on the Cross, and to make dead men live in the glorious Paschal Resurrection. Anything less than death and resurrection is a dilution of the faith.

Let’s turn our attention to the second part of that passage of St. Paul to the Corinthians. The crucified Messiah is foolishness to Gentiles.

The pagans of the Roman world prized sophia, wisdom, as is obvious from their many great philosophers. Along comes Christianity, and a Messiah whom the Christians claim is the incarnate Sophia from the book of Proverbs. But rather than presenting the people with esoteric statements and compelling syllogisms, Wisdom Incarnate heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, teaches long-suffering and love, and is eventually sentenced to torturous execution.

For them, there was nothing noteworthy here. This young Jewish rabbi taught nothing original except His insistence that we all take up our cross and share in His sufferings. Even worse, He spoke of a bodily resurrection. And so they called the message of the Cross μωρίαν (mōrian), which is where we get the English word moron. The Cross was idiocy, stupidity, silliness, and folly.

I honestly wonder if some of the intellectuals who are converting in this new wave will stay. Some philosophers have been able to make peace with the Cross by accepting Christ as the ultimate scapegoat and the human sacrifice to end all sacrifices. That works for a little while, but then our Lord says things like this:

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).

God asking us to deny ourselves and be co-crucified is a hard sell. He did not suffer so that we can put the Cross behind us and have an easy life. Instead, He invites us to co-suffer.

The fifth ode of the matins canon for this Sunday states,

The Church has been revealed as a second Paradise, having within it, like the first Paradise of old, a tree of life, Thy Cross, O Lord. By touching it we share in immortality.

In the very center of the Garden of Eden stood the tree of life. That tree, through Christ, has been revealed to be the Cross, which is the very center of the new Eden, the Church. And now – at the third Sunday of Great Lent – it stands in the very center of the fast. The Cross is the anchor of reality and there is no way around it. We are presented with three choices:

  • We can be scandalized by the Cross, becoming angry with it because it refuses to offer us the power that we seek.
  • We can mock it as idiocy because it turns worldly sophistry upside down, not providing the polished, eloquent answers we were seeking.
  • Or we can run to it, join our Lord upon it, and die with Him. We can die to worldly ambitions, lusts, comforts, and amusements. Descending into the dark grave of our hearts, we can allow Him to purge the death and decay hidden there. With the Apostle John, we can stand vigil at the foot of the Cross, silently contemplating the mystery. And by doing so, we receive the Theotokos and the Church as our Mother, and God as our Father.

This is the Christian’s call to death and to life. Through the Cross, joy has come into all the world. And through it, we receive the glorious Paschal resurrection, Paradise, Eden, life, and joy.

2 thoughts on “The Scandal and Idiocy of the Cross

  1. Thank you.

  2. Abraham Mathew April 8, 2024 — 7:15 pm

    Thank you very much Father for the very thought provoking message. Your message is greatly appreciated.

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