I still don’t know why Christians wear crosses. The cross was a Roman torture device. The cross was the vehicle the state used to kill insurrectionists and rebels. It was like the medieval head on a pike.
It wasn’t reserved for normal criminals or representative of criminal justice in the first century. It was how Rome showed rebels and instigators that they shouldn’t mess with Rome. It was an expression of power and subjugation and a means of maintaining control.
Would African-Americans wear a gold noose or klan hood? Probably not. Maybe as a counter protest, I suppose. I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to.
The earliest Christians used the ichthys, the “Jesus fish” as a symbol. That makes sense: Jesus taught the disciples to fish for people. But the cross? I’m still not sure I really get it.
Not the cross as we know it, anyway. The cross as they knew it? As the powerless people, it was rebellious. For powerful people to wear the cross is to maintain a different ethic.
For Christians today, the cross is more than counter-protest. It is the sign of victory over death. It is the moment of self-sacrifice and a symbol of the upside-down order of GOD’s Great Economy. The cross can then be a potent symbol of what GOD expects of us as followers of Christ, that we will also take up our cross. That we, as Jesus suggests to John and James, will have to drink the cup, too.
I still am not sure that the cross inspires the upside-down in us all by itself. As I reflect every year on Good Friday, praying at the foot of the cross, I think, not of Jesus in victory, but of Constantine.
I think of the painted cross on a shield used for war.
I think of crusades and Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial.
I think of hatred and vilification of the atheist and the non believer, the unorthodox and the dreamer, the Catholic and the Charismatic.
I think of how often the cross continues to cause pain to those who put their eyes upon it and I weep. I don’t sense the victory of Christ, but the continued crucifixion of his love and dream to upend the world.
Unlike the empty cross, a symbol which could reflect the moments before Jesus was hung upon it as much as it can evoke the time after he was gone, the crucifix highlights the barbarism in the act. For here is a dying Jesus, nails in his hands and feet, hanging, nearly slack, but not quite. Not dead, but dying.
The Crucifix is under no illusion to what it is and what it is showing. It is showing death. It is showing Jesus. And it is showing the torture he endured.
It is also revealing the story, the experience of Jesus on the cross. It evokes the pain and the suffering and serves a remarkable contrast to what will happen in a matter of hours.
If there were some way to make a symbol of Jesus being taken from the cross, of the finished moment, of Jesus dead, I wonder what we would do with it? Or perhaps better, a symbol for Joseph of Arimathea, caring for Jesus’s body in death. This would be a more obvious symbol for Christianity. Perhaps too on the nose for comfort.
The stations of the cross offer such an opportunity to symbolize these different moments, of course. But none is as present or overwhelming as the cross or the crucifix, stuck in the ground, raised above the people, and visible to all.
Whether the congregation uses a cross or crucifix has often been the difference between how Catholic the congregation is or perhaps how enamored we are with the blood.
The blood of Christ, told through stories of his bleeding, the gruesome descriptions of his demise, the obsession with the physical flesh of Jesus has a more significant role to play in the church than whether or not one likes a little incense.
The mental anguish of revisiting Christ’s death on a constant loop; of giving such attention to the abuse Jesus took in the Passion (or making it an annual event to watch Mel Gibson’s movie), reveals as much an obsession with his death as an inverse correlation to how many mainliners are eager to jump forward from the cross to the empty tomb.
I can’t help but see a connection between the blood spilled by Constantine in the 4th Century, the blood spilled by bishops at the great councils of the first millennium, the blood spilled in the crusades, in the Great Reformation, and in peoples seeking independence, all this blood with the claim of GOD on our side and an obsession with the blood of Christ.
Blood spilled. Innocent blood. Stupid, evil death; the rejection of the love of Christ and the Prince of Peace, embodied in our own human gore. Dress it up and call it holy.
A Different Symbol
This symbol of ours is hard to live with and hard to share. A cross, with or without Jesus, doesn’t function as a symbol of unity. It shouts division. Division within the body of Christ and without. It screams to its outsiders what our intentions really are: Pax Romana. Peace through war, peace through supremacy.
I honestly don’t know what to do with it.
Our congregation has them on the walls and around our necks. Our Prayer Book has one on the cover. It is the symbol of Christianity. Rehabilitating the symbol seems strange given that we seem to be using it as it was truly intended: as torture and control.
Perhaps this is a bit harsh. I’ll admit it. But it is also our deep conflict and our shame with those who don’t feel in concert with us.
Is there another option? Or is there a different way to share our faith? Must we plaster crosses and crucifixes all over the place for people to know they are in a church?
Boston’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral has tried out the expansion of symbols. In a major renovation in 2013 a new Pediment was created and put on the front of this historic Episcopal Cathedral. It is right in the center of town, facing the Public Gardens and is situated in an amazing cross-section of commerce, development, colleges, and the infamous “Combat Zone,” the seedy former theater district which was more recently populated by adult theaters.
Here, in the midst of this public space, in the secularizing city of Boston, is this beautiful cathedral and upon it they affixed a Nautilus, a spiral, a symbol which portrays mystery and inclusion and divine beauty. Not a symbol fraught with a past of brutality or soaked in the blood of victims (martyrs and enemies both), but a new symbol, and with it, hope and rebirth.
It’s creation was not without its critics, of course. Nor has the cathedral replaced each of its crosses with the nautilus. Such is the passion of the change averse. But here is a choice, an example of regarding the wounded, the suffering, those hurt by the cross and giving them a new hope.
Providing the people with a new symbol is not regarding the woundedness of Jesus on his cross, nor the wounding of those brutalized through history, but these in our own cities, suffering spiritual and emotional abuse. The people whose experience of the cross is present and unrecognized, unreconciled by the church.
A new symbol is not the only answer, but it is a response. A way of regarding the changing character of our faith and the evolving discomfort we have with the unyielding character of our communication: the character of our faith that may be least like Christ, the one we are trying to render symbolically.
Does the cross have a personal power for you? Do you adore it? How might that love translate to the wider church? How might we redeem the cross of its power? Or, as described in Mark 10, empty it of its power, that it might come to us in humility and service?
What symbols do we use to share the love of Christ? How is that love expressed?
Do we make known our value of unity through safe and inclusive means, or is our unity based in coercion and expectation? Do people know we are Christians by our love or by the cross around our necks?
How do we embody our symbols and allow them to shape us? And be shaped by us? Who are we willing to become and allow our cross and crucifix to become, to serve GOD in thanksgiving and grace?