In New York City years ago, there was a pastor in the Garment District who advertised his church as the “crossroads of the world.” (New Yorkers are given to that kind of language.) Well, when he became pastor of a church in Midtown, he advertised that one as the “crossroads of the world.” This priest was an evangelist and a master of public relations. But he was on to something: Every church is at the crossroads of the world. Indeed, every generation and every civilization finds itself at a crossroads.
But wherever there is a crossroads, there is a cross. When the Cross of Christ appeared in the world, civilization truly was at a crossroads. It would seem that God in His infinite wisdom chose that moment in history precisely because of its drama. Consider that the Crucifixion of Christ happened almost equidistant between the capture of Rome by the general Pompey and the destruction of Rome by the emperor Titus. It was at that crossroads of civilization that the Lord of history made Himself known.
Pride and Humility
The crossroads of every biography is this challenge to the soul: How will we choose? The soul that is governed by what it thinks is freedom but is, in fact, the delusion of pride, falls into slavery. It is pride, the pretense that we can live without the Cross, that splits the soul. The soul is made of the intellect and the will: Passion enslaves the will; pride then co-opts the intellect.
That great voice of the nineteenth century and of all ages, John Henry Newman, spoke to a group of university scholars about pride, knowing that pride is a besetting sin of the intellectual.
He said famously, “Quarry the granite rock with razors. Moor the vessel with a thread of silk. And then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”
Passion and pride: This is what Our Lord is speaking of in announcing the hour of darkness. He is describing the prince of lies, who wants us to think that passion — not the Lord’s divine and salvific Passion, but our fallen human passion — is the way to freedom, and that pride is the source of our dignity. Our Lord knows that passion and pride can be defeated only by suffering and failure. That’s what the Cross teaches us.
The Cross has been called the medicine of the world: It is the cure for this deep affliction, this neurosis within the soul that would have us mistake slavery for freedom. When the soul is divided, civilization begins to fall apart.
Accepting the Cross
The consciousness of God is the beginning of accepting the Cross. Once we understand that there is a God, He, by His grace, will show us that He is one, that He is merciful, and that He has the power to draw us unto Him. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Remember the way Our Lord revealed Himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). He is the source of all life, and indeed of being itself.
But if our souls are divided, if our civilization is split apart, we begin to lose the vision of God and His life-giving goodness that had been given to us. God told us, “I AM.” And yet, amid the remnants of a broken and decaying civilization governed by passion and pride, instead of proclaiming that God is the great I AM, we are reduced to sniveling observations about truth and eventually gasping out, “I don’t even know what ‘is’ is!” Well, as long as we refuse to confront the reality of the great I AM, we will never really know what “is” is. We will never understand the grammar of civilization. We will never grasp the true content of justice.
We don’t have to speculate about who this great I AM is: He came into the world in Christ. “I AM the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11). “I AM the Vine” (John 15:5). “I AM the Door” (John 10:9). “I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Here, in this God-man, we find the meaning of our existence, our civilization, our identity.
Our Lord went to the Cross at the crossroads of civilization, and conquered passion and pride through His suffering and His visible failure according to the terms of the world. We have to remember that the suffering of God in Christ was one of the most difficult things for His contemporaries to grasp. It was the mystery that caused many of them to flee the Cross. And even when people did try to identify with the Cross, they often tried to redefine or deny outright the suffering of Christ. These heretical groups within Christianity claimed that Christ was only pretending to suffer on the Cross. They could not understand that the divine glory and divine humility were one.
Joseph Goebbels, that vicious propaganda officer of the Nazi machine, wrote in a diary around Christmastime in 1941 that he had just had an impressive meeting with the Führer, who had told him that he very much admired the myth of the pagan god Zeus, the god of all the gods in the Greek pantheon. Why? The Führer explained that he valued Zeus as a figure of benevolence and kindness.
What a difference there is between the smiling Zeus and the pain-wracked, crucified Christ! That’s the experience of the twentieth century in a single anecdote. Our civilization suffered through another manifestation of the Gnostic denial of the Incarnation of God. Note especially how, for one of the cruelest men who ever lived, it was easier to choose the sentimental figure of a nonexistent deity than the suffering and failure of Christ on the Cross.
Christ suffered on the Cross to defeat the passion and pride of Satan. And He failed on the Cross. He had to fail — at least according to the lights of a deceived civilization. He had to contradict those criteria for worldly success that animate the passion and the pride of man. Christ cries out on the Cross, “My God! My God, why have You forsaken me?” (see Matt. 27:46). This is not some kind of mythical success story. No mythical god ever cried out like that!
Life at the Crossroads
When John Paul Getty was one of the richest men in the world, someone asked him his key to success. He replied, “It’s very easy. Rise early. Work hard. And strike oil.” (Not very helpful advice really.) Our Lord never said anything like that. Yes, He did rise early; He kept all-night vigils; and He worked hard to the point of sweating blood. But He never said, “Go out and strike oil.” Salvation does not depend on luck. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). We must stand at the crossroads and choose truth over lies, and life over death.
There’s an old proverb that goes, “Success is not one of the names of God.” These words came from the experience of God’s chosen people. When you read those words, you can still hear the lamentations of the Jews in their captivity in Egypt, in their forty years of wandering, in the desolation of their temple, in the Babylonian captivity, in the suffering through the ages, and in the horrors of the twentieth century. The choice between despairing of this world and hope in God’s providence is in every life lived at the crossroads.
Christ, the Messiah of the Jews, came into history to show us the resolution between light and dark, between life and death. As He walked through the crowds on one occasion, He suddenly said, “Who was it that touched me?” (Luke 8:45). One woman of the throng that surrounded Him had touched the hem of His garment, and He knew it. For however many civilizations there are, however many billions of people ever lived, each one of us is known to God when we touch Him.
But we have to call Him by name. We cannot call Him according to our own name, our own concept of what He is or should be. We cannot pretend that He is anything less than the pain-wracked, suffering Christ. Certainly success is not one of His names. When He hung on the Cross and cried out, “My God! My God, why have You forsaken me?” He was saying something that you will not find in any book or saccharine sermon about positive thinking. You will not see it engraved on any smile button. That kind of language is not “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” It is, however, the voice of the Lord of history — at the crossroads of history — hanging on the Cross.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He is speaking of you and of me and of every man and woman who has walked through the drama of the human experience. “Who touched me?” I did. “Well then, who crucified me?” I did. If we deny that, then we are governed by passion and pride, and the house of our soul is divided.
Yogi Berra, the master of malapropism, said that when you come to the crossroads of life, “take it.” It’s not much better advice than that of Mr. Getty, but I think you know what he meant. Christ gives everyone, every day, every time we wake up, a chance to choose. And of all the people who ever lived, we have less excuse than any to make a wrong choice, for we have access to the experience of all the civilizations that have gone before. We have the hard lessons of those who have rejected Christ. We have the consequences of civilizations that have turned their backs on God’s beauty and truth and love.
And every soul is offered the perception of the saints, who see at every crossroads the Cross of Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Rutler’s Grace and Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.