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.