The Cross. Walk down any street, any hallway in a crowded mall… Take a seat in any stadium and you will see someone wearing one. One person will flaunt it while dancing in a music video while another will kiss it when he gets a game winning point. It is on album art, church walls, tattoos, and on t-shirts. There may be one next to a bunny and lamb in a children’s puffy sticker book and one is surely listed among the grisly death devices in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The Cross.
As modern Americans we might think of the Cross as a cultural icon that fits with our nation’s Puritan heritage. Some might wear a gold chain as a symbol of vague spirituality. Others might tuck away a cross as a reminder of a childhood confirmation or a memory of a loved one who has passed on. We are comfortable with our version of the cross; sweet and nostalgic. It reminds of simpler times.
The pain and suffering of the cross seems somewhat shrouded in obscurity and otherness, and we prefer it that way.
The Cross at the time of Jesus’s death was the most gruesome form of death for a criminal. Today we could compare it to an electric chair, but still that doesn’t seem to grab enough sense of horror in the modern mind. Physician Dr. C. Truman Davis (Arizona Medicine) analyzed the medical aspects of Jesus’ death by crucifixion and described it this way:
He suffered hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, and searing pain as tissue was torn from His lacerated back from His movement up and down against the rough timbers of the cross. Then another agony began: a deep crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart, slowly filled with serum and began to compress the heart.
From there a person on a cross would often die from congestive heart failure or asphyxia. If a person did not die quickly enough their legs would be broken so they could no longer lift themselves to take a breath. We know from Scripture (John 19:31) Jesus’ legs were not broken, so he died more promptly than the other men on the cross with him that day.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie Passion of the Christ did a good job of showing the rawness of crucifixion. It was a movie that made most cry and look away often. It was difficult to endure watching even once. We usually hear about the Cross in detail from the pulpit only once a year on Good Friday. It is a somber, rather poorly attended service. It is uncomfortable. We can’t wait to hurry up and move along to Easter’s resurrection- and pretty pastel colors.
While most of the year our crosses are shiny and pretty, void of any thought of discomfort, such was once not the case. The emotion was once raw within the church. It is said during the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross was likely rarely used in art. It wasn’t until the 4th century that believers became comfortable with its
Over time the symbol of the Cross was adopted as a rallying symbol for battles and division. Many Muslims still today consider the Cross a symbol of violence because it was a hallmark of those involved in the Crusades. Jews have been afraid of those rallying under the Cross because many have blamed Jews for Jesus’ death. People have paid indulgences to touch a piece of wood they were told could have come from Christ’s cross- a form of spiritual abuse.
The Cross is horrible and beautiful and we are remiss when we chose only one or the other. At its core the cross complexly divides and unites. It is both horrible and beautiful. For the believer the Cross is the place where our Savior, Jesus Christ, willingly chose to lay down His life. Although it was a group of Jews who physically performed the crucifixion, this was a part of God’s prophetic plan. Hundreds of years earlier Isaiah prophesied about the coming Messiah.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5
It was because of that work of death and resurrection we have a faith of exclusivity. There is one mediator between God and man; that is Jesus. There is no other way of salvation and eternal life in Heaven than through Jesus Christ. That is divisive.
The Cross unites. It has been said a believer speaking Mandarin Chinese living in Beijing and Christian farmer in Iowa have more in common than two family members who don’t share the same faith. The Cross brings together people to pray for the persecuted church around the world, as those who are brothers and sisters under the same God. The Cross also unites in that it is open to all. There is one Gospel for all of mankind. No good works are necessary to accept Christ as Savior and Lord, just a simple child-like faith.
To forego remembering the pain Christ suffered cheapens salvation. It is easy when the pain of the Cross is forgotten to drift into an attitude of self-sufficiency. With the violence of the Cross in mind we take more seriously our sin and what our sin DID to Christ. It can deter us from willfully pursuing sin when we think of the suffering it causes/caused our Savior. At the same time we should gladly embrace the beauty. The beauty is Christ our Savior whom the Cross represents. Beauty is found in the gift of salvation. It’s worth putting on a t-shirt or a chain, but it is not worth cheapening like some concert souvenir. It is a symbol of the life we have received through His death.