Reflections: “The Cross? – I Don’t Give A D___!”

Cardinal Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, France told the story of a group of boys in Paris in 1939. 

Being typical 13-year-olds they were looking for some fun and excitement and began to dare one another to go into a Catholic church, right into the confessional and there confess to the priest of having committed all manner of heinous sins and see what penance would be required of them.

One of the boys was Jewish. He entered the very unfamiliar confines of the confessional and did his best to sound sincere as he rambled off the list of “sins” he had concocted. The priest caught on to the ruse but instead of reacting in anger responded with great wisdom. He instructed the boy that his penance was to go to the place in the sanctuary where hung a large cross with the figure of Jesus crucified on it. He was to look up at Jesus on the cross and repeat three times, “Jesus, I know you died for me but I don’t give a damn.”

The boy thought this was a lark and proceeded forthwith to do so. He said it once: “Jesus I know you died for me but I don’t give a damn”. Then he said it a second time. But he couldn’t say it the third time for he became overwhelmed with emotion and ran out of the church in tears.

Cardinal Lustiger affirmed the truth of this story by revealing that the little Jewish boy had been him. Standing face-to-face and speaking to the crucified Jesus had revealed to him the truth and power of the cross of Christ. 

Lustiger was baptized, later became a priest, eventually became archbishop of Notre Dame in Paris, and finally a cardinal. He had a long and rich ministry, especially in confronting and lessening Christian and European anti-semitism.

The scholar and bishop N.T. Wright from England tells this story about Cardinal Lustiger to illustrate his belief in the power of the cross. In the 2,000 years since it happened, over and over again people’s lives have been radically transformed or massively strengthened by the recognition that Jesus “died for me.” 

This belief – that Jesus died for you and me – has been at the heart of Christian belief since the beginning. Understandably it has also been misunderstood, ridiculed, mocked and denied by folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t believe it could be true. Even in many Christian circles today there is strong discomfort with affirming this belief that Jesus died for me because it sounds so negative and makes people feel bad.

Much ink has been spilled by Christians trying to convincingly explain what the cross is about and why it is true. We say that the cross made atonement possible between humans and God, and then go on to use one of the traditional atonement theories to explain the mechanism of this.

N.T. Wright suggests that when Jesus was on Earth He didn’t go to great lengths to provide His followers with a theory for how to understand what His mission as Saviour was about. Instead He enacted powerful symbols: water baptism; hugging children on his lap; hanging out with tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes; touching and healing lepers; washing His disciples’ feet; sharing bread and cup in communion; and being raised up with arms outstretched on the cross.

As the son of God sent to Earth because of God’s love for the world, Jesus was tasked with confronting and overcoming the powers of evil and sin, and making it possible for all people to recognize they are beloved children of God, to come home to their loving Father, to live in this world establishing God’s ways and overcoming evil’s ways, and eventually to live with God in eternity.

The cross is a recognition that in this world evil has tremendous power and sway. We certainly see the truth of this in the latest news from Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan, Haiti, Myanmar; or the horrible conditions of homelessness, drug addiction and overdose deaths in our own cities; or the persecution and killing of Christians in Nigeria, Afghanistan and India; or the untimely deaths of so many caused by cancer; or the mental health issues so many adults, youth and children are burdened by; or the pain of broken marriages in our family and friendship circles; or the struggle each of us knows in being loving, selfless, kind and caring in our own lives and relationships.

When Jesus died on the cross He overcame and broke the worst that the powers of evil could throw at Him. His resurrection from the dead showed that evil and death need not be feared. 

The cross and resurrection of Jesus are a bold, visual, tangible proclamation that evil will not have the last word, that God is more powerful than Satan and death and suffering, that we can live in God’s ways because in the end God will make things right, and justice will prevail over injustice.

If you have had difficulty accepting that the death of Jesus is at all relevant to your life, I would invite you to find an image of Jesus on a cross – in a church or a book or on Google – and try the exercise that little Aron Lustiger was asked to do. You may well be surprised that the power of the cross speaks to you more than you ever imagined.

Dave Tiessen