The Manchester Art Gallery has a painting by Holman Hunt titled “The Shadow of Death.” The painting portrays Jesus as a young man working in a carpenter shop, presumably his home. He has been working on a piece that is unseen. The scraps of shaved wood are on the floor. He is standing by a saw.
In this moment he seems tired and is stretching. His arms are lifted and stretched wide. The light is coming from the front so a shadow is cast over the wall where there is a beam of wood holding spikes and nails. The image on the wall looks like Jesus is on the cross. Mary is there kneeling on the floor; she has been gathering some things that look like the gifts the magi had brought at Jesus’ birth. The artist has her now looking up at the shadow. She supports herself on a stand where her hand rests. Under her hand is an open copy of the Scriptures. She stares at the shadow on the wall.
The artist, through his painting, invites us to consider that Jesus’ cross and death overshadow his entire life. His entire life points to the cross. Last week we were reminded of this in the account of the Transfiguration. As Jesus was coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John, he told them not to tell anyone about what had happened until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
This Sunday we have another reference to the cross. Jesus is cleansing the temple. After he expels the moneychangers and those selling the animals for sacrifice, the people ask him: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” He answers: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
In ancient Israel, sacrifices were offered to God for different reasons, for example praise, thanksgiving and atonement for sin. At different points this worship was corrupted. It became a source of money for sellers and the true intent of the sacrifice was lost.
One of the aspects of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is that when he offers Himself as the sacrifice on the cross, these other offerings would no longer be needed. His offering is perfect praise, thanksgiving and atonement. His sacrifice is offered for all and cannot be replaced by any other.
The early church proclaimed Jesus’ death as the source of life. His self-offering and subsequent resurrection from the dead brings life to all who put their faith in him. St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians reaffirms this to the Corinthian Christians who are questioned about their faith. He writes: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul continues: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” It is in Christ’s death that we find life. It is in Christ’s death that we find the answers to our questions about life.
The first reading recounts the Ten Commandments. These form the basis of the law of God given as a sign of the covenant between Israel and God. Two relationships that are at the heart of the law are the relationship between God and his people; the second is among the people themselves. These are seen in the Ten Commandments. The first three dealing with the former; the next seven dealing with the latter. The relationships are to be preserved through the law. The basis of these relationships is love.
Jesus’ offering on the cross brings the relationships to a whole new level. His offering of himself in both obedience to the father and as an offering for all humanity brings the law of love to fulfillment.
Jesus came among us to reconcile us to the Father and each other through his death on the cross. His death is the victory of love. The Holman painting described above reminds us of the centrality of the cross in the life of Jesus. Jesus teaches us of the centrality of the cross throughout his public ministry. Our journey through Lent provides us the opportunity to reflect on the cross and to ponder its power in our lives.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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