The Cross. For Christians worldwide, no religious symbol more enduringly exemplifies their faith than The Cross. And this powerful, defining symbol comes directly to the forefront during the Easter season. Because it is on Easter Sunday that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ crucified on The Cross. Christ taken down from The Cross. Christ buried in a cave. And Christ rising on the Third Day. Perhaps more so than for any other Christian holiday, Christians ‘center’ around this day of Easter. A truly special day. Preceded by Lent. Preceded by the Passion of Good Friday. Preceded by the wait on Saturday. Then the dawn of Easter Sunday arrives, a day of glory and hope and joy. The actual ‘date’ of Easter varies each year based on an earlier calendar, our lunar and solar celestial cycles, and a tie to the Jewish celebration of Passover. But the ‘day’ is firmly established as the highest of high celebrations for people of the Christian faith.
And The Cross is central to this faith. For we’re told that Christ was crucified on it. The Cross. A vertical beam intersected by another, horizontal one. That Christ’s arms and hands were violently outstretched and nailed onto the respective opposite sides of the horizontal beam. While his feet were forcibly secured on the vertical one. The Cross. All part of the gruesome, inhuman practice of crucifying human beings by the Roman Empire during Christ’s time. Crucifixion was reserved for those people whom the Roman Empire deemed the ‘worst of the worst’ criminals. More to the point, reserved for those whom the Empire most feared. Because crucifixion was a particularly visceral, brutal form of the death penalty and of human execution. A public display of prolonged, excruciating death by the victim. Used to instill fear in the general population more widely. In order to deter those perceived by Rome as potentially threatening disorder or dissention. Message clearly and inhumanly sent…
But there’s a potential problem with all of this. Because many scholars translate the Bible’s reference to The Cross as not being an actual cross. Instead, the original word ‘cross’ meant an upright stake or pole, not The Cross, as we typically understand it. It’s therefore entirely possible that Christ was never actually crucified on a Cross. But rather, he may have been impaled by or hung on a pole. Or hung on a tree. Perhaps hung even after his death (by some means), not as the mode of his actual execution. Maybe, however, Christ actually died on The Cross. Scholarship is divided. And we’ll never know for sure from a historical standpoint. It’s all made even more complicated by the fact that early Christians, themselves, didn’t use the symbol of The Cross during the first century or so of the nascent church’s existence. Because they viewed crosses as pagan symbols, which comports with the long-standing use of crosses in the worship practices of many ancient ‘pagan’ civilizations. Used by these societies for worship of ‘gods’, not of God. As such, veneration of The Cross was seen as idolatry, not true worship, in the early, emerging Christian faith community.
In fact, there’s some limited evidence that The Cross wasn’t institutionalized as the primary symbol of the Christian faith until at least as late as the 4th Century AD. Folklore and legend have it that the Roman Emperor Constantine, a pagan who was later converted to Christianity only on his deathbed, adopted the symbol of The Cross after having seen a cross-like vision in the sky or in a dream. Some say that he ordered a cross symbol to be emblazoned on his soldiers’ shields before a major battle to ensure military success. In any event, there’s really no factual proof that Constantine’s adoption of The Cross had anything whatsoever to do with Christ’s crucifixion or rising from the dead on Easter. Unless Jesus, Himself, was the source of Constantine’s vision or dream. Sadly, we’ll never know for sure. For our history of Christ’s life, death, resurrection… and of the early Christian church, for that matter… is sparse. Secondary, verifying sources are quite limited. And this all points to the inherent difficulties of definitely knowing the ‘historical’ Jesus. Versus ‘knowing’ the Jesus Christ of our faith. In other words, the difference between the Historical Jesus versus the Jesus of History.
This isn’t to say that Jesus Christ didn’t actually live. Didn’t actually serve, teach, heal, lead, guide, and gather others around him in miraculous ways. Isn’t to say that Christ wasn’t actually executed. Wasn’t actually buried. Didn’t actually return to his disciples after his crucifixion. And didn’t actually rise. It is, however, to say that Christ is contextual. Because we cannot pinpoint, with any real accuracy, what actually happened here, we view Christ in accord with our own respective experiences and contexts. Here’s a pertinent example in this regard: the predominant picture shows Christ as a white man. Yet we know that Christ wasn’t a Caucasian. He would have been a Galilean Jew in the Middle East. But our often-stereotyped interpretations of Christ are based, to a large extent, on the work of white European theologians, artists, and painters in human history. Christ is, therefore, a creation of these specific, limited contexts and histories– not those of the rest of the non-white world. And sometimes, in the process thereof, insulting the reality and sensibilities of other cultures in Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia. Christians in these ‘other’ geographies (and contexts) probably envision a very different looking Christ. Quite naturally so, in fact.
Given this, then, Jesus Christ is who each of us makes him to be through our faith—within our own contexts and experiences. We’re guided by what’s written in the Bible, of course. But we know Jesus only in our respective hearts and souls. Which brings us full-circle back to the symbol of The Cross. If Christ is contextual to a large extent, so is The Cross as the symbol of the Christian faith. People who face daily discrimination, economic exploitation, suffering, marginalization, rejection, and violence on their own streets may well not ‘see’ The Cross in the same way as do those who live their lives in relative comfort and security. This is because the latter group of people can afford to see The Cross as conceptual and symbolic. But for those who suffer socially, economically, physically, and geographically, the symbol of Christ’s suffering on The Cross could actually mean something altogether different. For these people, the crucifixion could conceivably come off as abhorrent or even repulsive. As yet another sign of violence by the powerful against the vulnerable. Conversely, it might actually bring comfort. For those who ‘know’ regular suffering can feel real, lasting solace and accompaniment by a Savior who actually knows what it means to suffer in agony. Further, for those of peace, Christ’s gruesome death may symbolize the notion that violence only begets further violence. As such, they may reject our veneration of Christ’s death on The Cross. While others may see The Cross as a sign of ultimate victory: eternal life over bodily death; God over Satan; and hope over despair. So it’s all quite contextual, if you know what I mean.
In the end, what’s the import of this at such a profoundly sacred time in the Christian liturgical year? Perhaps it’s that we all could be more open, inclusive, flexible, and respectful around the multiple different voices of the Christian faith—as well as the varying contexts that different peoples of the world bring to the faith. More specifically, to the myriad possible, even conflicting, interpretations of the symbol of The Cross. For many, if not most, Christians, The Cross represents God’s forgiveness of our inherent, human sinfulness. Christ stood-in and substituted himself for us in order to pay our debt of sin to God. Jesus ‘took the fall’ on our behalf, and we are redeemed only by believing in the One who saved us from eternal death. That’s the predominant view, if we’re honest. But I believe that this notion, in and of itself, is much too narrow and constricted. For The Cross symbolizes far more than merely this in all its possibilities. Because, for me, The Cross most personifies Connectedness. Mentally picture a cross with me, if you would, for just a moment. The intersecting middle section of the cross is our connection with ourselves. The vertical top portion is our connection with God. The lower vertical section is our grounding connection with our planet and our sacred earth. The two respective horizontal sections are our connections with others… and with all living creatures. In short, abiding, eternal, and powerful spiritual connectedness. Picture it in your own minds and in the context of your own lives.
Then picture this when you think about The Cross. Visually, in your own mind, take Christ off The Cross for just a moment. And think deeply about his outstretched arms. Go beyond the obvious of Christ’s suffering and death. Go beyond the things that you understandably see and feel about the suffering and death of Christ. And embrace the living Christ. The Christ who came to us in life… and who’s eternally with us in our lives right now. Who’s standing with outstretched arms in a gracious sign of welcome to us all. A universal welcome grounded in Christ’s abiding, grace-filled love and sacrifice for us. Grounded in the principle of peace, not of violence. Of redemption borne of living, not of death. Of the enduring notion that, whatever our respective contextual symbols of Christian faith are, we might all agree on this: God did not walk away from us in Christ. No. God embraced us in Christ, ‘God with Us’. Love wins in the end, if only we’ll let it do so. And that’s a heartfelt, compelling symbol that never gets ‘Crossed’.