Holidays and Holy Days; My Christmas Book

This is a book of columns about Christmas and Easter that I put together with the SC Baptist Courier two years ago.  It’s still available and I think you would enjoy it!


Instrument of torture as wearable art; Jesus mocks the cross…

Old weathered wooden cross with blood and tie ropes representative of the cross that was used during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Old weathered wooden cross with blood and tie ropes representative of the cross that was used during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

My wife has a new cross necklace, given to her by some dear friends of ours. It’s a beautiful bit of silver-work, with flowing lines, flowers and a fish symbol. In fact, our house has a lot of crosses on the walls. People have remarked at the number and artistry of them. We smile and say, ‘every entrance faces one; keeps out the vampires.’ 

It’s odd, though, that the cross became a thing of decoration to Christians. There were pre-Christian cross symbols and pre-Roman crucifixions, but the Roman penchant for this particular form of suffering, and the very execution of Jesus, would seem to have put an end to any illusions about the symbol being a thing of beauty.
And yet, it was first used to represent Christianity as early as the third century AD. At that point, the cross was still being used as a form of execution! (Indeed it probably continued for a few hundred years more and still is used in parts of the world.) Then, as now, wearing a cross was rather like wearing a necklace with an electric chair charm, and decorating with one is akin to having a wall hanging with a noose in the center; rather macabre.
For some, crosses of silver and gold, wood or stone, are nothing more than cultural decorations of minor historical interest. However, to those who really understand and keep Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, to those who take the time to study, pray and reflect, the cross is a treasure of unfathomable power and beauty.
We could say, for instance, that the death of Christ on a cross was the ultimate act of social justice. You see, Roman crucifixion was for the ‘outsiders.’ The only Roman citizens executed on the cross were army deserters. Others were exempt from its brutality. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, his death was the death of the stranger, the immigrant, the slave, the criminal. He died with the kind of people he touched, healed, comforted, taught and came to redeem. He was not ‘connected’ or possessed of earthly power.
His cross, blood soaked, embedded with scourged skin, was a symbol of the rebellion of love and non-violence against earthly power and its vanities. He did not resist. He said to his enemies, in essence, ‘fine, have it your way. Even here I work for your good. Hate me, kill me and I will love you through my death.’ Unlike most of history’s rebels, he said of his tormentors, from the crushing height of the cross, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
All of these things make us seen the cross as compelling, even with its stains and jagged edges, ropes and nails. But the reason, in my opinion, that it became a thing we see as beautiful is that on it, Christ finally ended the tyranny of sin and death. It’s beautiful because it is empty; because finally someone died on a cross (with all of its condemnation and misery) but lived once more.
In the ancient world death lurked everywhere, but without even the staying hand of modern science, medicine, hygiene and law. And on that cross Jesus, by dying and returning, put the power of death to sleep forever, and showed mankind that although we would die as well, we could also live again like him. The message is precious to the sick and grieving; that is, all of us in the end.
There’s more; because now as then, guilt and remorse, evil and worry, sorrow, loss and brokenness were everywhere. Christians call it ‘sin,’ as unpalatable as the word is today.
The power of sin, the devastation of the entrenched separation of man from God and all that it wrought, also ended on that hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Finally, we could say with joy that Christ mocked the cross and all it stood for by defying its power and the power of those who used it. The old rugged cross, dark god of death, became a thing for necklaces and wall hangings, covered in flowers and rimmed in silver. The wooden torture device liberated and turned to good, like everything Jesus touched.
Easter is a time of flowers, pastels and so many beautiful things. But none as beautiful as the cross and the one who died on it and triumphed over it.


Beautiful cross made from flowers

Beautiful cross made from flowers

The Cross Pokes us with its Sharp Corners

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Happy Easter!  He is Risen Indeed!

I have a cross necklace that I received as a gift for Christmas. This cross is a little larger than others I have worn. It is noticeable. And it is also a little annoying. When I sit, it pokes me in the chest with sharp corners. I have to say that I’m glad. Crosses, the ones with real meaning, are like that. They are, one might say, offensive.

Christians use the cross as an emblem of our belief. It’s on our churches and the back windows of our cars. It’s draped around our bodies in jewelry and tattooed on our skin. It decorates the walls of our homes (which remain vampire free; it works). We could have stuck with a fish, or some symbol that looked like an empty tomb. But we are drawn to the cross, to the horizontal and vertical confluence of earth and heaven, the geometric representation of the person of Jesus.

Today, the holiest day of the Christianity, we remember that ultimately powerless cross of 2000 years ago, where Jesus of Nazareth died for a while. Crucifixion was hardly unique. It was just one implement of misery used by an empire adept at causing suffering and death, for all their greatness in other areas. (Like all powerful empires and nations.) I think that maybe his cross can seem offensive to moderns because it was not special. Thorns, scourges, beatings, blood, nails, ropes, spears, insults, nakedness. The way common convicts died, in pain and fear. Is it offensive because it was so common? Maybe. We like our deities the way we like our politicians, super-heroes and entertainers; rich, powerful, invulnerable. Jesus, on earth, was none of those things.

Of course, the cross may be offensive, even painful to us today because we can inherit it. Jesus said, ‘if any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.’ It looms over the believer’s life, saying ‘what have you done for the one who hung here?’ But we prefer small crosses, with smooth edges and no demands, that we can stow away for Sunday.

Or it could be that the cross is annoying and offensive because it meant judgment and punishment. We prefer to pretend, in our moral and spiritual superiority, that there must be no judgment of anyone, for any reason. And we certainly don’t want to see punishment meted out, unless it’s against our ideological enemies. But just maybe, the entire story we celebrate today offends because it exactly what we need, and exactly what we refuse. The world wants the love of the teaching, healing Jesus. The world is offended and frustrated by the moral, righteous Jesus and by the very idea that we sin and need atonement. (This despite the fact that we believe fully in sin, we just call it things like intolerance or hatred, phobia, greed or ignorance.)

The story is also offensive to us because it spits in the eye of death, the one thing we fear most of all (an idol for modern man if ever there was one). I mean, that we decorate ourselves with the instrument of our Lord’s torture and murder can only be by his design; perhaps it’s even his way of goading the devil; a cosmic, ‘told you so!’

The resurrected Jesus also offends because he rises above the hatred we want to hold so closely as our own possession. Jesus lives, dies and rises for all who will accept the gift: for ISIS fighters and the Christians they usher into martyrdom, for gay rights activists as well as fundamentalist Christians. The same for liberal and conservative, rich and poor, for Israeli and Palestinian, city and country, atheist and believer, Democrat, Republican, Communist or Tea Partier. Easter offends because the tortured, resurrected Jesus gives us no excuse for our own varied ways of hating and marginalizing. The stunning, love soaked sacrifice he made was the most democratic, the most universal, ever offered.

Today, we celebrate the offending, offensive, loving, pursuing, resurrected Christ. No amount of apologizing for him will make him less annoying to the world, so we needn’t worry about trying. And no amount of your own pride or sin will make him love you less. His cross, wounds and empty tomb are witness to that truth.

He is risen indeed!

Cheering His Doom. (A poem for Good Friday.)

Cheering his doom. A poem for Good Friday, but I’ll be on the road tomorrow. (I posted this last year, but wanted to bring it out again.)

Jesus on the Cross with Heavenly Sky Above



Cheering his doom


Tattooed and angry,

drunk or hung-over,

violent and frothing,

through the streets of Jerusalem

they called out

rude names and screamed

‘crucify him!’


It was sweet to see the healer,

the hypocrite, the charlatan

brought to a just end.

But any bloodshed was

better than boredom,

or the quiet hell of guilt.


And behind them, arms crossed

over fresh, clean robes,

were the sober

the good and proper who,

also, shouted or whispered

(those whispers were venom)

‘it’s a good thing too,

a trouble-make he is;’

terrified, all of them, that the man’s

words were a threat to their dusty,

ages-old ease,

or might awaken their numb souls,

so long free of nagging prophets.


Yet it was neither Jew nor Roman,

barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free,

male or female who lined the streets

where spit-covered palm fronds,

one week old,

decayed beneath

his bloody feet.


It was not Protestant or Catholic,

not Orthodox or Pagan,

not Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu

or even atheist.


It was I, me, mine, us,

who loved him first,

then found hate more natural than

the higher, harder nature he offered.

God indeed!


And we cheered (and cringed) as the scourge flew

and the flesh flew and the fists

and hammers fell hard,

and the thorns made blood into wine,

while nails

sank into those carpenter’s

holy hands

(leaving holes for future doubters),

and a spear opened a fountain

of baptismal fluid on the hillside.


And on that third day, well,

who saw that coming?


Except him, of course.

He forgave our ignorant

complicity from his

transient throne of cross-beams.


Blind, helpless fools.

In our murder, we merely

let him save us.


Edwin Leap, 2014