God with us: The meaning of the cross and resurrection — then and now
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IN THE first part of this book, Rowan Williams explores the meaning of the cross through the three main biblical approaches.
The first is as a sign of God’s undeviating goodwill to us, so that whatever the nexus of cause and effect in which we are caught up, God in his transcendence is steadily for us. Second is through the image of sacrifice, which, in essence, is the offering of our hearts, now made possible as Christ himself comes to dwell in us. Third, there is the cross as the sealing of a great victory over all that thwarts God’s purpose for humanity.
The chapters are deeply and illuminatingly rooted in the scriptures, and then linked, in the first chapter, to Abelard’s teaching on how the cross changes our whole outlook; in the second, to Anselm and why the sacrifice of Christ is necessary; and, in the third, to the tradition, at once literary and visual, of the descent into hell and something objectively achieved for all humanity.
The second part of the book explores the biblical understanding of the resurrection and its meaning for us today. He argues that a belief in the resurrection of Christ is interwoven with the earliest strands in the New Testament, and that what it meant, above all, was an overwhelming sense that a new decisive phase in God’s dealing with humanity had begun, and that there was nothing less than a new creation.
He does not deal closely with the evidence for the empty tomb or how we are to understand the resurrection appearances, but “this was an event that resulted in the tomb being empty, and on Jesus actually appearing to his friends — but whatever the exact nature of the event, it had the power to produce the belief that the world has changed for ever: that this particular human being, Jesus, not only didn’t belong to the past but from now on was bound up with how we talk about God, so that anything that is ever said about God again must have some reference to Jesus.”
The main part of this book originated as Lent and Holy Week lectures. There is an epilogue on the icon of the resurrection (often known as the descent into hell in the West), in which Williams focuses on the fact that, as Adam and Eve are being pulled up, their faces are aged, bearing all the marks of life. It is our actual physical, material existence, as lived, which is transfigured.
This is Williams at the peak of his masterly powers as a Christian teacher and spiritual guide. It is accessible, and the examples are vivid. There is no Christian who would not be greatly enriched and deepened by reading and reflecting on it.
The addresses were designed for a Christian audience. Those of a sceptical mind who find all this imagery strange, if not alien or repulsive, would have to allow their imagination first to be captured to get into this world. If they did, it would be life-changing.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).