Why do we wear crosses around our neck or hang pretty cross plaques on our walls? Why do Catholics make the sign of the cross and what is it that we think of when we see these things?
A couple of my girlfriends and I are reading John Stott’s classic, The Cross of Christ. We’re going to read a chapter a week and meet after work to talk about it. Today we talked about the first chapter, The Centrality of the Cross. Here Stott discusses how the cross became symbolic of Christianity. What struck me most about this is what the cross actually meant to first century citizens, both Romans and Jews, as well as others. The cross was the most horrific instrument of torture and death, reserved for the worst of criminals. Its very shadow or mention in conversation was enough to cause strong reactions (an understatement) of horror, disgust, repulsion and shame on the one who experienced this kind of death. Cicero went so far as to state that the very word ‘cross’ was so abhorrent it was to be far removed from a Roman citizen’s eyes, words and even thoughts. On top of this, the Jews knew that anyone who hung on a tree (and they did not differentiate between a live one and its wood cut into two beams) was cursed. And they weren’t talking Harry Potter.
I suspect American Christians know little of this. I know nothing of what reaction the symbol of the cross produced in people 2000 years ago. I only know of pretty crosses adorning necks and entry ways. Why did Christians choose such a shameful, horrible symbol as the very thing that identified them with Jesus? I learned that it is because it was central to Jesus’s life on earth. From His youth He steadfastly walked toward what He knew was His task, His calling, His choice. Because it was central to His mind it was central to His followers. It IS central to His followers.
From chapter one: “How is it that Christians can face such ridicule without shifting their ground? Why do we…insist on its centrality? Why must we proclaim the scandalous, and glory in the shameful? The answer lies in the single word integrity. Christian integrity consists partly in a resolve to unmask the caricatures, but mostly in personal loyalty to Jesus, in Whose mind the saving cross was central. Indeed, readers who have come without bias to the Scriptures all seem to have come to the same conclusion.”
So, my prayer is that I no longer see pretty crosses. That when I see this symbol I recognize it for what it is. For what it means. For what it meant to Jesus, and what it means to me, and to all those who sit at its base and realize what was wrought upon it.
Today one of my girlfriends reflected that she never understood why a friend of hers honored Good Friday over Easter, but now she gets it. I pray that every day I will “get it” more.