We may not think about it very much, but we identify ourselves, and define others, by symbols.
Whether by certain colors or sports teams logos, uniforms, the cars we drive or the wedding rings we wear (or don’t), we continually mark and define our place in the world.
A simple object; a ring, a flag or a cross, takes on power and inspires passion beyond measure when it takes on the searing, enduring strength and meaning inherent in a symbol.
Once a symbol takes on this place in history and culture, it takes on a life – and identity – of its own; far more than the life – or destiny – of any given individual or even nation.
Christianity is defined around the world by two symbols; the cross for most Protestants and the crucifix for most Catholics.
Most of us have grown up with – or at least have a common familiarity with these two symbols.
But we must ask ourselves at least a few questions; what do these symbols really mean? For those who don’t share our faith, or even those who do, what do these symbols really communicate?
Who are we, and what cause or set of beliefs have we partnered with when we take on a certain symbol?
The two major strands of Christianity see – and have ascribed – an immense – though often overlooked power and meaning in these symbols.
Catholics would urge us to keep the man on the cross, God in the flesh, ever before our eyes. And our ‘righteousness’, our accomplishments, and our ‘good works’ are rags and rubbish in the light of God’s sacrifice.
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Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 1:23) that compared to Christ’s sacrifice, nothing else matters.
And just as God’s sacrifice is ever before us, humankind’s cruelty, murderous intent and distance from God is incorporated in the Crucifix; the meaning is clear – this is what we humans will do to any who dare confront our pride and violence with living truth and unyielding righteousness.
And Jesus knew, as every follower should, that this is how the world, then, now, and perhaps forever will treat those who speak the truth.
And Jesus reminds us that we must, as his disciples, bear our own cross, that, occupied or empty, waits for us.
Protestants, on the other hand, hold in honor an empty cross, polished and clean – many times of burnished brass (or even, as I grew up with, glow-in-the-dark plastic) but always barren.
Martin Luther valued the crucifix, but for a variety of reasons, most of us who adhere to the Protestant tradition use the barren cross because it represents the concept that the sacrificial work of Christ is done.
But it had always struck me as odd to honor the gruesome executioner’s tool, however antiseptic we have made it.
Some Christians show, or sing of, a ‘rugged cross’. But even that is too sanitized; an authentic cross would be blood-splattered and would represent nothing less than torture, murder and public humiliation.
The Romans used crucifixion as an act of state sanctioned terrorism as a clear message to those who would challenge the sanctity of the Roman Empire. It was deliberately barbaric and never used against Roman citizens.
But it was used often. Jesus was one of many thousands executed this way. And each one suffered a lingering, public, shameful death. There were few, for good reason, who dared gather around a crucifixion scene; any who did would be considered compatriots – and equally guilty.
Most were left hanging until birds and other scavengers picked the crosses (relatively) clean.
Whatever cross we may use, it should not be a toy or an ornament.
I grew up in the Protestant tradition, but I like the idea of Christ still among us, and perhaps even still suffering among those of us who suffer. The sanitized, polished cross tells me little – except that we, even as believers, find even a distant facsimile of the cross offensive and incomprehensible.
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Christianity, perhaps more than anything else, is a call to glory, but it’s a glory barely visible, and rarely reasonable by human standards.
Which is what we should expect from a faith that asks us repeatedly if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
I’m not convinced that God would be pleased by our allegiance to the cross or the crucifix. Surely our eyes and hearts should be directed, not backwards, but forward and on the work and passion in front of, in reach of, each one of us.
We are not our own, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) and he goes on to tell us that to be a follower of Christ is not to live a life of comfort or privilege, but to take on our own cross and live in a reality where the greatest in God’s kingdom is the willing, even eager, servant of all.
The cross, empty or full, representing a Savior present or absent, is perhaps most of all, a sign, a symbol of citizenship of a kingdom where we, without hesitation, or even deliberation, speak truth to and reach out to, those in need, whatever the cost, even when we may not ‘want to’.
This is the living cross, the cross that costs everything, and opens our doors, and our eyes to the world.
And the world, like the ultimate (and personal) cross, waits for us. The cross, its glory, its promise and its blatant gruesomeness is no abstraction. I understand why we cling to the bronze or plastic image; it is far easier to hold – and live up to.
The man on the cross, and the broken man (or woman) in front of us has a name. And we make abstractions of them as well; we have eyes to see, if only we would use them.
Do we ever see, or dare to get our hands dirty – or even bloody – as we encounter the wonder, grace, menace, suffering, pain, glory and opportunity right in front of us?