When Martin Luther began work on his Small Catechism in 1528, he intended to include a section on what he called the “theology of the cross,” a theologia crucis, in contrast to a “theology of glory,” theologia gloriae.
Luther thought this contrast so important that he planned to include a special section explaining it. When he got down to it, though, he decided he didn’t need to say anything more. It was already there in the explanations for baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Theology, of course, is simply a way of talking about God. Everyone who talks about God has a theology. Theology is nothing more than a framework for conversation. A theologia crucis compels us to talk about God from the cross.
A theologia gloriae begins elsewhere, ignoring the downside of life. A theology of glory, say, stages a Christmas pageant but drops the curtain before mad Herod rushes in with his sword to slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem. A theology of glory is a cheerleader for Jesus: “Hang on, Jesus; just a couple days ‘til Easter!” The cross becomes a speed bump on the way to everlasting glory.
We cannot look at the cross and say, “Whew! Boy, I’m glad that’s over.” We must look at the cross and say instead, “That’s the way it is.” As St. Paul bluntly reminds us every Holy Thursday, when we “eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes.”
Theologia crucis is a way of thinking about God—who God is, what he is like, what he wants from us and for us—and a way of thinking about what happens to us going through life. Day after day we discover in our relationships, in our families, in our work, in our schooling, and in our citizenship what it is to lose control, what it is to lose the illusion that somehow we can take hold of life by the neck and wring from it whatever we want. We learn every day that some things are beyond our control. To know that is to know something about dying, to know that we all fall down together.
The cross of Christ becomes ours to carry, and, as we are promised, our cross becomes Christ’s burden.
Day after day, as we discover the cross shaping our thinking, shaping us, we also discover the force and the power of the Resurrection. It takes the first to know the second. We discover how Christ loves us and holds us in our dying.
When we come to the end of the Eucharistic liturgy, we say, “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” To say those words is already to die upon the cross. They challenge the illusions of the self that mine is the kingdom, mine is the power, and mine is the glory. To say those words is to know one greater than ourselves. And having prayed this, we then go on to live for the glory of God.
But God’s glory is hardly anything as we expect. I am always stunned in my encounters with people who—with every cause for bitterness—nonetheless exhibit a good cheer and a trusting heart. Christina Sorensen was one of them. She was born in 1893, and she was my parishioner and my friend the last three years of her life, still a vigorous woman until she died in 1983 at age ninety.
Mrs. Sorensen—I never called her anything else—was about the poorest old woman I’ve ever met. She lived on a ramshackle farm and looked like she had stepped out of The Grapes of Wrath. Her life was one tragic episode after another. Her young husband went off to the Great War in 1917 and came back an invalid from mustard gas. Her farm had been foreclosed in the 1932 Depression and saved by a penny auction. She loved her son, but he was drinking himself to death. Yet despite all that, there was a charm about her and a humor and an unfeigned joy.
She taught me how to cool my coffee with a dollop of vanilla of ice cream—but only for special occasions. I asked her, “What’s a special occasion?” “Well, whenever you have coffee, I suppose.”
I once asked how she persevered in all those troubles of her life. She stirred her coffee. “Life has come hard, but I’ve always known Jesus.”
And there is Christ’s cross and, in Mrs. Sorensen’s life, God’s glory.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.