Guilt and the Cross: A Lenten Reflection

March 3, 2022
Rev. Donald A. Wells

We have now entered the Lenten Season. It is a time of retrospection as to how we are doing in our journey as disciples of Jesus and, also, a time for the recommitting of ourselves to the work of God in the world. May we all be open to the leading of the Spirit as we work our way toward Holy Week.

But there is one thing, in my opinion, from which we need to be relieved: namely the notion that our sins crucified Jesus. The Romans crucified Jesus. They were the only ones who had the authority to carry out a death sentence. Not you; not me.

For too long, over centuries and down to the present day, many people in the wider Christian community, through word, song and liturgy, have believed that their sins nailed him to the Cross. We need to be relieved of that guilt and the trauma that stems from it. For example, hymns like ‘Ah, Holy Jesus’ (NCH 218) intones: ‘Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Jesus, that has slain you’. Or the very popular ‘O sacred Head Now Wounded’ (NCH 226), suggests ‘What you, dear Savior, suffered, was all for sinners gain; mine, mine was the transgression, but yours the deadly pain’. Whether we sing those particular hymns or not their teaching permeates the Lenten experience for many. Others try to nuance it by saying that our actions crucify him afresh. It’s really the same thing. As a pastor for many years, I have seen how this misguided understanding of the Cross has placed unnecessary guilt upon people, creating life-long issues of shame and inner anguish thus keeping them from the fullness of a life of faith.

The focus during Lent, so it seems to me, is to repent of our neglecting the things for which the Romans executed Jesus. An empire cannot be run on love, compassion and justice. To survive, empires need to engender fear, engage in persecution and always make the ‘other’ subservient to its needs. And Rome’s agenda was what Jesus’ ministry counteracted.  He crossed social and religious boundaries; he cared for the poor and the outcast; he elevated the status of women; he spoke of forgiveness; he blessed children; he comforted those in grief or pain; he embraced those deemed unlovely and spoke of a different kingdom (realm) than the one Rome exemplified. Indeed, he demonstrated how God’s embracive love is the capstone for life. All of this, and more, certainly put him at odds with the ruling powers. Empires gets rid of such troublemakers.

For us, then, Lent is a perfect time to take stock and ask about our own passion for pursuing Jesus’ ministry and to ask how we might do better. We need to confess our failures, yes, and then move forward in concert with one another, relying on the strength God will supply in order to pursue love, mercy and justice in this broken world.

Your sins and mine did not kill Jesus. Rather, we are now called to renew our commitment to God’s work in the world, work that cost Jesus his life. That ought to be our Lenten Focus.