19 March: Before the Cross VI: Why?

 

Saint Anselm’s feast falls on 21st April, Easter Day this year. So let’s visit him during Lent, reflecting on Good Friday and Easter with another Archbishop of Canterbury.

The crypt of Canterbury Cathedral was closed as they prepared for a service, so I went upstairs to Saint Anselm and sat opposite his post-war window. The focal point, it seemed to me that morning, was not the central figure of Anselm in bishop’s robes and pallium, holding his cross and giving his blessing, but the three Latin words on the book below the Saint and the descending dove of the Holy Spirit:

CUR DEUS HOMO

in English we would say, ‘Why did God become Man?’ Look again at the open book. There is also a sturdy tree on the page, a reminder of the Cross; it bears a cruciform flower. And indeed, Bishop Anselm carries a cross, not unlike the one we saw in the photograph from Algeria in the first post in this series. 

in his introductory chapter, Anselm says, ‘to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.’ We cannot disagree with that, even if we find his rather legalistic argument off-putting. 

Where Scotus would later argue that God wanted to become man anyway, Anselm argues that the way for sinful man to be reconciled to God was for the perfect sacrifice to be offered in atonement. A perfect sacrifice could only be offered by a perfect man, and that man was Jesus, and the perfect sacrifice was his death at the hands of sinners.

On the other hand, Anselm’s successor, Rowan Williams, argued in a Lenten talk in this cathedral that Christ lived a life-long passion: his whole life was a sacrifice, making holy the human race and all of creation. Here is Anselm (II.viii):

No man except this one ever gave to God what he was not obliged to lose, or paid a debt he did not owe. But he freely offered to the Father what there was no need of his ever losing, and paid for sinners what he owed not for himself. 

We are all obliged to lose our lives, but we can learn, not just from Anselm’s writings, but from his example. He left home to travel to Bec in Normandy to become a monk; at Bec he became a teacher and leader of the community before he was sent as Archbishop to Canterbury, where he continued teaching. But as Archbishop he had other duties, and was exiled twice for opposing the Norman Kings of England, William II and Henry I. He risked the same fate as Alphege his predecessor,  his successor Thomas, and his crucified Master.

‘Freely offered to the Father’ sounds like love to me, as does ‘lifelong passion’, as does Friar Austin’s view that:

Jesus is revealed in a life no longer under threat. The Resurrection is the realisation of his message of total freedom.

Different views of the same event, which was not Good Friday only, but the 33 years before that, and Easter Sunday and the eternity following that.

The text of Cur Deus Homo can be found here .

 

MMB.

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