All things new
6 January 2019
There is a moving scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in which Mary runs to assist Jesus after he falls under the weight of the Cross. Jesus embraces her and says, ‘See, Mother, I make all things new.’ The statement, which is a derivation of Revelation 21:5, sums up the mysterious and paradoxical way that Jesus is radically transforming creation. Yet, how could Jesus be making all things new as he is ground down by the worst violence and evil? How could something new come out of failure or good come out of evil?
Gibson’s use of this statement from the book of Revelation seems at odds with the context that he uses it in, namely, the Way of the Cross in which Jesus is failing and suffering in an extreme way. By contrast, Revelation 21 is a vision of triumph and finality. In it, John receives a vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, where the ‘new Jerusalem, coming down out from heaven’ has God dwelling with humanity in full communion: ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’
It is a beautiful vision in which humanity will no longer worship through signs but will encounter God directly. God will permeate all aspects of this new life in which humans are now ready to partake of the tree of life. But is this vision appropriate to place on Jesus’ lips as he suffers his passion and death? Gibson’s identification of this triumphal notion of renewal and victory with the Cross is actually deeply insightful. It goes to the heart of the Christianity grounded in the Paschal Mystery.
The Cross is not just the means of salvation, to be forgotten at the end of time. In it, we see the fullness of God’s life and of true human life (which is why we call Jesus fully God and fully human). On the Cross, Jesus truly makes all things new—as the Gospel of John emphasises by making clear that the Cross is Jesus’ ‘hour of glory’. This is not an effort to whitewash the Cross but to identify what lies at its core: namely, the suffering God-man who gives everything to humanity, even as they give him their worst.
In the light of the Resurrection, the disciples recognised the true nature of the Cross: that God in Jesus had fully given of himself to humanity (and continues to do so), despite the overwhelming physical and spiritual forces against him. God had truly ‘made things new’ with the total gift of himself. Divine love had irrupted into human history, overcoming evil and death. When Jesus confronted evil on the Cross and conquered death in the Resurrection, humans could then truly know and believe that God was with them (‘Emmanuel’) even in their worst moments; that death was not the end for them but was the pathway into life with God.
In Jesus, it is clear that no experience is removed from God. Whether it be suffering the evils of others or inflicting them ourselves, God can touch us and be present to us, calling us into his life of love. And he does this most particularly and fully in the humanity of Jesus. God took on human form to show us that we, too, are capable of giving of ourselves, like Jesus, with the help of grace. Divine love had met human love, and lifted humanity up to be members of the ‘new Jerusalem’.
As St Paul knew, no matter what humans have done, grace is capable of transforming us into a loving gift to God and others. St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is pivotal to understanding the nature of the change that comes with Christ: Paul meets the one whom he is ‘persecuting’ and experiences unconditional forgiveness. He is transformed from a violent persecutor into a self-sacrificing lover through his encounter with Christ as forgiving victim. As James Alison writes in Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in:
Imagine what it is like to be approached by your forgiving victim. It is actually very difficult indeed to spend time thinking about our being approached by our forgiving victim! What is it like to actually undergo being forgiven? … But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: ‘Even though you were dead in your sins, he has made you alive together in Christ.’ Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realise there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, ‘Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.’
According to the cultural anthropologist René Girard, St Paul’s experience is an exemplar of the kind of change that Christianity (and Judaism) brings. By analysing myths and rituals across multiple cultures, Girard argues that the Cross has transformed human societies in a concrete way: by revealing the victims of human violence, rather than hiding or covering them up. These victims, according to Girard, are the centres around which humans build social unity through scapegoating.
By contrast, the Cross and Resurrection definitively reveal the way human societies operate to bring about order and unity, and transform it through forgiveness and love. In Knowing Jesus, James Alison writes:
The problem is that the social other which forms us is, and was before we came along, a violent other, full of the distortions, cruelty, murder and exploitation which abound all over the planet … Each of us is locked into the social other in a series of vicious circles. That we can perceive this at all is thanks only to the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus. There would be no way for us even to perceive fully the violence of the other which forms us unless there were something different, if you like, a different sort of other, which is not part of the violent other which forms us. That is precisely what is made present by the gratuitously self-giving victim [Christ].
God does not wish to expose human societies to just show how wrong we are; God wants to give us a better life together with him and each other. In Jesus, God is re-making human communion, so that it can move away from violence towards love at its centre. God does not bring about this new communion through violence, but rather, becomes one of us to form a new type of community (or ‘kingdom’). As John 3:17 states, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’
Thanks to Judaism and Christianity, it is popular in the contemporary world to stand on the side of the victim—in contrast to the ancient world, which was primarily interested in victors. Yet, the modern world often does so through violently condemning or repressing those perceived to be ‘victimisers’ or ‘persecutors’ of minorities. The modern world is imbued with the Judeo-Christian insight into the victim but still wants to resort to violence to resolve its problems.
By contrast, God does not wish to condemn human individuals and societies to hell for their mistakes and sins. God wishes to liberate them from the evil in which they are involved through the gift of his way of living—that is, through the conversion that comes through the encounter with the forgiving victim, Jesus.
The early Christians were stunned at this realisation—that the Creator of the universe was not some hard task-master or even a benign dictator, but is so full of love that he would give himself completely to his creatures. How fortunate we are! How blessed that we are given life and given it to the full by a Creator-God who wants to share his life with us!