A Holy Saturday Meditation: The Cross is the Devil's Mousetrap

On a day, Holy Saturday, when we ponder the creedal confession that Jesus "descended into hell" a meditation from 2012:

St. Augustine once compared the cross of Jesus to a mousetrap--crux muscipula diaboli.

"The cross is the devil's mousetrap."

This idea strikes modern Christians as alien and strange. Largely because we have lost the Christus Victor frame of the early church. For those new to this blog or these ideas, Christus Victor was the dominant view of the atonement for the first thousand years of the church. It is the view that the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus was involved in liberating us from our captivity to sin, death, and the Devil.

Then as now, Christians tend to push past general formulations such as this--Christ rescues us from the Devil--to ask question about mechanisms. We move from "What happened?" to "How did it happen?"

For example, modern Christians subscribing to penal substitutionary atonement often ask about the mechanisms at work in the theory: Why does God demand our death and how exactly does Jesus's death satisfy God's wrath and justice?

In a similar way, the early Christians wondered about the mechanisms of Christus Victor: How exactly did Jesus liberate us from the power of the Devil?

These sorts of questions lead us out onto thin ice. When we turn to stories about mechanisms--hypothetical scenarios about how it all works--we start to get specific about things that the bible only hints at. No doubt, for example, the bible suggests that there was a substitutionary facet to the death of Jesus. Something bad happened to him that should have or could have happened to us. But how, exactly, that substitution "worked" in saving us is hard to say as the bible doesn't get into specific mechanisms. In fact, most biblical scholars would say that substitution isn't really a mechanism, it's a metaphor, and that what we have in the bible are a lot of metaphors without a lot of unpacking of those metaphors.

And yet, not being content with poetry what a lot Christians have done throughout the ages is to fixate on one particular metaphor and then unpack the hell out of it, specifying in great and specific detail how this one particular metaphor might literally and mechanistically "work." These attempts are sort of like reading a great poem and then insisting in your English term paper that this is what the poem literally means. That's fine if you are a 5th grader, but we expect more from adult readers of poetry. And Scripture.

Still, we thirst for mechanisms. We like to get specific. We crave cause and effect stories. And so, in unpacking the Christus Victor metaphors of ransom and liberation in the bible, Augustine posited a mechanism. How did the cross save us from the Devil? The cross, he suggested, is like a mousetrap.

How so?

The idea goes like this as unpacked by various church fathers. From the beginning of Jesus's ministry Satan tries to thwart Jesus. But failing to get Jesus to fall into sin Satan ultimately decides to kill Jesus, to just get rid of the guy. (Recall that Satan enters Judas's heart suggesting that the death of Jesus is Satan's idea and plan.) Satan, we know, eventually succeeds and Jesus is killed. Thus, Satan, who possesses the keys to Death and Hades, now "owns" Jesus and has him locked up in Hades.

Satan has taken the cheese.

However, what Satan doesn't know is that Jesus isn't just another human being. Jesus is God Incarnate. In this Jesus is sort of like a Trojan Horse. So when Satan takes Jesus to Hades--Surprise!--he finds that the enemy has entered the gates. There in hell Jesus takes the keys of Death and Hades from Satan, binds him, and then releases the captives. In Christian theology this is called the Harrowing of Hell.

The mousetrap snaps.

Modern Christians tend to find this whole scenario pretty weird and implausible. But I'm fond of this story. I find it theologically rich and interesting, and it has its advantages over penal substitutionary atonement.

So here on Holy Saturday, as we ponder Jesus being in hell, are two reasons why I like the mousetrap story.

First, I think it is a recurring theme in the New Testament, and in the gospels in particular, that the Kingdom of God is hidden. And why is it hidden? Because it is small, weak, and powerless. The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed--too small for us to see or notice. Like the homeless Lazarus at the rich man's gate. Or the child standing off to the side while the adults are talking. Or the slave who is washing your feet. The Kingdom of God is in all these places. But we can't see it.

Thus it is not surprising that those without the eyes to see it will miss the Kingdom and will fail to appreciate its logic and power. In the words of St. Paul, the cross will always be foolishness to the world. Satan cannot see the power of God in the cross. And most of us can't either.

Second, the mousetrap story suggests that evil, in its exercise of power, will overreach. God, by contrast, by allowing evil to overreach, saves us non-violently, with powerlessness. Being Love God appears weak, allowing Satan to kill, allowing Satan to use power and violence to accomplish the purposes of evil.

On the surface, God appears to be the mouse, the dead thing caught in the trap, the one hanging on the cross. God absorbs violence but overcomes it with love. What looks like a dead mouse to the eyes of the world--Jesus hanging on the cross--is actually the power and Kingdom of God. In the biblical imagination, Jesus is enthroned on the cross.

The dead mouse is actually the mousetrap.

Sometimes I wonder if this is why God doesn't use power in this world. I wonder if this is why God doesn't come down and start knocking heads together to make it all work out right right now. I wonder what that sort of god would look like, a god that started kicking ass and taking names to force the world into compliance. A little like Satan?

But maybe God is powerfully at work in the world, but in the hidden, powerless way Jesus described in his Kingdom parables. Maybe, as St. Paul said, God is using the powerless and weak things of the world to shame and defeat the powerful.

Maybe there are mousetraps all around us.

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5 thoughts on “A Holy Saturday Meditation: The Cross is the Devil's Mousetrap”

  1. While growing up in a literal and mechanistic religious universe, I was that "5th grader". But a funny thing happened on my way to the "forum" of hearts and minds; I began to sing the scripture. No, not as a melody, but as a movement, a movement that is composed from a rich blend of thoughts and voices that sing their story throughout the day.

    It is from these songs that I learn that each person spends his or her time in hell, times in which they often inwardly scream, "I'll never find my way out of this one!!!" But, as I listen, I hear most of them, in their own spiritual language, say, "But, I did". And they did by love's sacrifice. Sometimes, another's; sometimes their own; often mutual. And for me, these stories arrange the scriptural notes of "dying in order to live", "the cross" and "resurrection", to become one movement, one that can pierce pain and death to say, "Remember it, and sing it your own unique way, you and yours will not be left in hell today".

  2. "And yet, not being content with poetry what a lot Christians have done
    throughout the ages is to fixate on one particular metaphor and then
    unpack the hell out of it, specifying in great and specific detail how
    this one particular metaphor might literally and mechanistically "work."
    These attempts are sort of like reading a great poem and then insisting
    in your English term paper that this is what the poem literally means..."

    This. So much This. "We crave cause and effect stories." But oh, isn't this a bit small for God? And even just a tad arrogant on our part? And I wonder - why AREN'T we content with poetry? Its beauty is dangerous, isn't it. Poetry gets in through the cracks of the soul and just may stir up a bit of heat - like a fan to a dying flame. Who knows where that may go? As I've grown older, I've become more hungry for poetry. My poetry. Your poetry. Mystery. Where there is room for all the voices. All the questions. All the poems. All the metaphors. "Maybe there are mousetraps all around us." That question stirs my imagination today.

  3. "Satan cannot see the power of God in the cross. And most of us can't either." Thanks for that, because that indeed is quite a challenge I think. To see the power in the cross. To see the power in a life that is 'laying itself down' and 'not seeking itself'. To make this great leap of faith and live with the deep mystery of true power. It feels like your life becomes a tiny droplet on a hot plate: what's the difference of this way of living? I can hardly see it, the larger part of the world around me cannot see it for sure and can God see it? How does he see it? And what does he do with it? How do mustard seeds grow? It all seems so insignificant, a small seed buried in dark earth, patiently waiting for an Easter-show-down...

    If find it a struggle to live like this in my day to day life, probably I'm just too scared, or too ignorant. Anyhow, it takes me a lot longer than expected to make this new way of living my second nature, let alone my first...we need grace for sure :)

    I was reminded of the movie 'Adam's apples' in which this 'Satan cannot see the power in the cross'-theme is worked out in a very surprising way. It's a Danish black comedy which is rich in meaning and has a few brilliant jokes (given a certain appetite for the black comedy genre...), it's just a great movie and actually quite comparable with Calvary (which I also enjoyed very much, thanks for the tip, looking forward to your comments on that).

  4. I like Richard Rohr's comment, "If it can fit in a box, it it's not God."

  5. I liked this a lot. It reminded me that the process is more important then the results. If we win with the devil's tools then we are still lost. In the context of the church it makes me wonder about our preoccupation with results, be it numbers or obedience. As Cinderella would say 'Have courage and be kind", which I think is a brilliant encapsulation of our mission, and if you have a chance watch the remake in theaters, it does a great job of portraying the idea that evil simply cannot see the value in something that it does not desire, like love, which confounds all its wisdom and knowledge.

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