The cross was made up of two wooden planks, nailed and bound by twine in the shape of a lower case ‘t’. Throughout ancient tradition in the Roman Empire, these were used as means of execution for criminals and captured soldiers of war. In the first century, two planks were erected and stained with the blood of Jesus Christ. Soon after, the cross soon became a symbol that would be worn by monks around their necks, could be found in churches, on the walls of homes and on the coins of Christian emperors like Constantine. For some it reminded them of the work of Christ, for others such as Emperors, it was a symbol of their own religious beliefs and that which they claimed for their empire. Today, the cross is one of the most dominant signs of the Christian faith. It is superficially worn not only as a reminder of Christ’s death but is also a sign that reveals ones religious beliefs. However, I often think that these outward symbols tell the painful and gruesome story of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness revealed through death.
Death. The cross is a death sentence. I say this obviously because Jesus died on it. I see tears of blood as Christ is praying in the garden of Gethsemane. I see him taken by the Roman army, the betrayal of his followers and a sentence of death. I see a man beaten and scorned, spit at and laughed at. A man no one understands, no one gets. I see a man who does fully know or completely understands what is happening. I see a man, willfully suffering in every way for those causing him pain. I hear nails piercing flesh and cries out to God who does not seem to be listening, or perhaps just watching; then a yell as the cross is erected and gravity takes its toll. I see soldiers stab Him while others watch. Some are crying, some of laughing, some are still. Then I hear a final cry, “God, why have you forsaken me?” and I remember that because of this, we, his creation, has been forsaken.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the light, seas, all its inhabitants. When he saw his creation he said that it was good. However, just as man entered the world, so also did sin. Once sin found its place among man, we began losing sight of God, and began dwelling on the desires of our flesh. This led us further and further from God. Throughout the ages God has punished us, spanked us, told us we were idiots, and has tried to start over, hoping that we would realize our need for Him. However, as always, we quickly turn back to the flesh.
Because of our fallen state, God came to earth in the form of man to try and bring our eyes back to the Father. The Son of Man became the living, breathing, speaking, “Word” of God. Through his teachings and his actions, Jesus Christ became of model for humanity. In Christ, we are shown what it means and what it looks like to fully rely, trust, and follow God. It is through Christ we see love and compassion for all God’s people. Although we fall and fail time after time, and even though we turn our backs on God and push him aside, his never ending love for his people, brought Christ to this earth. Though the Son we are given a chance to redeem ourselves. We are shown how to act, how to love, how worship. Through this love he reveals to us by and through the Son, so we can learn how to truly love God.
God’s love for us indoctrinates in us his grace. If I was one of the disciples, I like to think that I would not have betrayed Christ like Judas. I hope I would have stood up for him and his mission that I believed so heavily in, enough to follow him throughout the dessert, and I would have claimed him at his death. However, like Judas, I betray Christ every day. Every time I complain about chapel, get frustrated with Christians and Christianity, think prayer is unnecessary, hate my neighbor, or cheapen my faith, I betray Christ. I betray Christ every time I betray myself or my neighbor, however, as a follower of Christ, I claim that his grace is still offered to me. His grace teaches me to give grace under the hardest circumstances because Grace hung on the cross. I see myself turning Christ in or denying him, and I see him hang there because of me. However, because of His grace, I am not the one hanging on the cross. This Grace was hung for me.
God’s forgiveness and mercy for his creation does not end on the cross. As many Christians believe, Christ was buried and rose again, walked once more with his disciples, and ascended into heaven. The cross is empty, and the tomb is empty. His ascension means that he was able to conquer death; he conquered death for me and for all. Although I will fall, I will be tempted and tired and give in over and over again, I am free of the curse. I am no longer chained up by laws, sacrifice, sin and death, I am free.
This vision of the cross, empty and bare, reminds us that God is currently working and dwelling among his people. He is no longer restrained to the tree. In the Baptist Church, none of the crosses have Christ on it. The empty cross represents the death, resurrection and Christ’s ascension into heaven. Most sermons acknowledge the resurrection, reminding us that although we have fallen short we have hope through Christ’s resurrection. This imagery also places more emphasis on the work of resurrection and the role of the Holy Spirit in the world. Thus, the Holy Spirit dwells among us, continuing on the mission of Christ through his followers. This cross emphasizes redemption and salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although seeing the empty cross offers us warm feelings, seeing Christ on the cross offers some a clearer since of reality. Unlike the Baptist and other protestant traditions, the Catholic Church always places Christ on the cross. This emphasizes Christ’s suffering because of our sin, thus our need for repentance. We are reminded to place ourselves on the cross where we belong. We see ourselves hanging there suffering because of sin, hoping that one day we will no longer have to bear the weight of sin. There is hope in knowing that Christ has conquered sin and death, thus, one day we can do the same. The crucifix reminds us of the need for the Savior. We subjectively rely on the Holy Spirit to continue on fulfilling Christ’s mission, but this imagery is not necessarily found on the icon.
The sign of the cross acknowledges the role of the Trinity. The Father is at the head, the Son at our chest, and the Holy Spirit at our left and right shoulder. Although we claim all are equal, the Father is at the head because He is unbegun and brought into being the Son. The Son is below the Father, because the Son relied on the Father as a child relies on their parents for guidance and direction. He was sent to earth, which is below the heavens, to die, be buried, and rise again. The Holy Spirit then remains on earth working through mankind. By doing this, all parts of the Trinity are united, recognized and remembered.
While the icon of the cross holds deep meaning for many, if I was to be honest with myself and others I would have to admit I wish that there was a different symbol for Christ that we could wear, rather than the cross. For me, the cross belongs in the church, on a rosary, on a wall, or motioned during prayer or supplication. I think that it is perhaps weird, for lack of better word, that we walk around with what would today be an electric chair or lethal injection needle, around our necks. Also, the cross has become an icon that has lost its meaning because it is over used. This icon is used so often that more often than not we just see the cross, and not it’s meaning.
At the beginning, I used the word ‘gruesome’ to describe the story of the cross because the cross is not like an execution chair or lethal injection. The cross means hours of hanging, bleeding, plain, and agony. You watch and feel yourself die slowly. In this story, represented by this icon, we not only remember this death, but we remember why. We are reminded why Jesus was bound to it, thus we prostrate ourselves before God, acknowledging our sin that put him there. The cross to me is not pleasant and definitely not beautiful, but what is real is not always these things. This gruesome reminder reveals to us over and over again the work of God through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a message of love, grace, suffering and hope for the people of God.
I do not think of Christ when I see the cross. I do not see grace and mercy, obedience to God. The cross has not become a symbol that in which I am emotionally attached. When I look at the cross, I see a man hanging there who believed he was being obedient the teachings of God. A man who believed so strongly in social justice that he was willing to be condemned by man for healing the sick and loving the ugly. I see a man who loved others more than himself.
While this vision Christ is lovely, the cross also reminds me of the absence of God. I hear Christ calling out to a God who has forsaken man. Seeing the cross reminds me of the homeless, the raped, the persecuted, the condemned, the ill, the hurting; I am reminded of all those praying for salvation from the current state, those who are fighting for something better, those who try but are forsaken. I see a God not present among man, a God who cannot or will not stop the hurting of those around him. Thus, the cross has become for me a symbol of the reality of life-no matter how loud we cry, God has forsaken us.