By: Marc De Kesel
The cross is the crux of Christian Love. If Love is the name for the new, Christian regime overcoming the old, Jewish one of the Law, if it is what leaves behind the realm of sin and death and inaugurates the New Creation, then the cross is what enables this. It is the figure of how God – ‘in his Son’ – takes upon himself our sins and our mortality, and by doing so, delivers us from them. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3: 16).
This is a hard thing for modern man to understand, let alone to accept. Why is the laying down of one’s life an act of love? Is that bearable at all for the one for whom this is done? And what about a God sacrificing his one and only son in order to save those whom he also calls his children?
From the very beginning, this idea has been criticized and often rejected for being thoroughly cruel and criminal, even in the bosom of Christianity. Unless, however, you interpret this cruelty as precisely what Christianity intents to lay bare and, by doing so, to deliver us from. This is the idea underlying the theory of René Girard. The violent scene of the crucified innocent brings to the surface that it is indeed our cruelty, our sins which the sacrificed victim bears; and that if we remember that scene, we in the future may avoid that cruelty and locate sin definitely where it belongs: with us.
But why is this procedure named love, the highest form of love, even? Is love essentially sacrifice? Is it love when a divine Father, to love the human, sacrifices himself (or, what for him amounts to the same thing, his son)? Is it love that a soldier is presenting when he dies for his country on the battlefield? Is it an act of love when a fundamentalist, out of love for a true world, bombs himself together with the old, corrupted world?
In spite of the differences between the three kinds of sacrificial love, they have something formal in common. In all three, an act of gift-giving is involved. They are all forms of ‘gift traffic’. In those cases, the gift is extremely radical; it is the most radical gift possible. But in less extreme forms, love is no less a matter of gift and gift-giving. It is what one gives and what is given. It is what the giver never easily, thoughtlessly gives, and what the receiver knows he could refuse, for if he does not, the accepted gift urges him, in the near or far future, to give something back. What precisely love gives, is not easy to grasp (did Lacan not say it is “giving what one does not have”?), but that it is matter of gift-giving is clear. Just like everyone knows that, in love, gift-giving can go far, sometimes too far.
But is love giving oneself? Is it sacrifice and self-sacrifice by nature? Not every gift is like that, of course, but a gift like that is possible. What is more, to be a self-gift, it should not have to be a real, i.e. lethal, self-sacrifice. Erotic love illustrates this perfectly. Is love not both the desire for the beloved and the act of giving oneself to him or her? Is not what makes love so joyful that, out of love, one can give him- or herself to the one he/she loves?
It is indeed not a matter of really giving oneself, but it is surely lived like that. In the act of love, I have lost myself in the other. And the very moment I realize that, I feel sorry already that I am no longer lost. This is what French eroticism calls ‘the little death’, ‘la petite mort’. It is the feeling, after the act of love, that I again feel something, whereas before, in the moment of ecstasy, there was no longer an I to feel anything. And that moment in which the I was lost, is the acme of love.
It is the crux of love: to disappear in the loving act. To disappear in it in one’s quality of ego, I, self. To finally get rid of being an ego, an I, a self or whatever. To exist, not because I exist or – what amounts to the same thing – want to exist, but to exist only because someone else wants me to exist. In that very wanting of the other, in his desire, I ultimately want to disappear, to the extent of no longer being an ego, an identity, a self.
It is a strange thing: if love is what makes me what I am, than that love ultimately loves to deliver myself from the I, I am. Love has something to do with death: since there has been poetry, songs have been sung about this. Death is in the heart of love. Death is unconsciously the ultimate thing I long for in loving someone: it remains a weird thing to understand, let alone to accept.
Is this what we see when staring at Christ crucified? Is this the Passion?