Good Friday Meditation
Do you have a crucifix in your house somewhere? Many people have them, in the bedroom, in the hallway, anywhere really. We have one in the Hall – made by Mike Appleby a few years ago. Some schools have them in every classroom, and many people wear one around their neck. The one I’m wearing now came from Jerusalem, where only this morning a Christian pilgrim was murdered by a terrorist. The cross has become a kind of Christian badge: a symbol of faith, to remind ourselves of our crucified Lord, and perhaps to show others that it is he whom we follow. Some people wear a cross in the same way they wear a lapel badge of some organisation or club they belong to, or rather as they might wear a poppy or other charity supporter’s badge. Others wear a cross, sometimes hidden, because being a Christian is something so inherent to their being that wearing it is something fundamental to their identity.
Recent controversial legal cases that have presumed to prescribe whether or not employees of airlines and hospitals may wear a cross have in some cases caused great concern, as for some the right to wear a cross is the same as the right to be a Christian in the first place. In a ‘Christian country’ such as the UK, it is worrying indeed that the Cross is a symbol of faith which is taken to cause offence, and which a citizen may in some circumstances be banned from wearing, either visibly, or even at all. It is a basic human right to have freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but there are those who would draw a distinction between what one believes inside and what one wears on the outside. Nevertheless, in Spain in 2008 a court ruled that crosses should be removed from state schools, and three years earlier a child in a school in Derby was asked to remove hers and was suspended when she refused. Consequently, both in Quebec and in Italy, judgements in 2008 and 2011 respectively declared that it was not a breach of others’ human rights to have crucifixes in public places such as schools and law courts and parliament buildings. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes are acceptable in state school classrooms, describing them as an ‘essentially passive symbol’ with no obvious religious influence. Nevertheless in 2013 airline employee Nadia Eweida had to go to the same court to maintain the right to wear a cross at work, and obtained a judgement which declared that manifesting one’s religion is a ‘fundamental right’. After nearly two thousand years, the cross of Christ is again controversial.
However, as we are all too vividly reminded on this most holy of days, the cross is not simply a symbol or a badge of faith. The cross has been domesticated so much that it is worn as jewellery, or nailed to a wall. In either case it can serve as profound reminder of the crux of our faith, that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and rose again to bring us to eternal life. Crucifixes were originally made as objects to aid devotion and assist prayer, but as time has gone by, some have been made and used as ornaments, objects of aesthetic beauty, or furnishings. Some crosses, in our homes, for example, are so much part of the furniture that although they are present, they go unnoticed. As such, as St Paul might put it, the cross is emptied of its power.
In this, the fate of the cross in modern society, is a mirror image of the original type of which it is a token still. The cross is not a symbol, ornament or piece of jewellery. It was a brutal, oft-used, do-it-yourself improvised structure of torture and execution. In Roman Palestine around the time of Jesus, using trees and cross-beams roughly hewn, criminals were unceremoniously nailed or tied to them in excruciating, breath-depriving, blood-draining, heat-scorching ways, and were left in sun-baked public places to choke and bleed to death. While it was the Emperor Constantine who in 312 first decided that the cross was a symbol under which to fight in battle, thus turning the cross into a badge, any recognition of what a cross was for, and what it did to its victims makes the idea that it is simply a religious symbol, offensive.
The cross is offensive now as it was at the time of the first Christians. To Jews, the fact Jesus was crucified made him cursed:
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
As well as explaining Jewish sensitivities towards the death of Jesus (which St Paul called a ‘stumbling block’) this injunction explains why Jesus needed to buried immediately: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were keen to make sure that even one who had ostensibly been executed as a transgressor of the Law, should be buried according to the Law.
Meanwhile, to Greeks (non-Jews, or gentiles), the idea that someone who is God would allow himself to be crucified is utter nonsense. Gods are to be worshipped, feared and adored, and by definition are powerful, almost magical beings. So a God who is so weak as to be humiliated by being killed in such a mystifyingly horrible way is so fanciful as to be beyond credibility.
After the resurrection, the first disciples had this double barrier to overcome in persuading anyone who would listen that Jesus, the man who the Jews called a blasphemer and who the Romans called a rebellious troublemaker, was the Messiah, the Son of God. It is remarkable that any of them got anywhere.
But everywhere they did get, in spite of early obstacles, and much martyrdom, such that now the story is so ingrained in western culture that the cross has been emptied of its power as so many people have no idea nowadays what it truly represents. While a court can rule that it is a ‘passive’ symbol: a harmless badge, we remember that countless martyrs have died for the truth it points to, and are dying still. There is a great irony in the fact that a depiction of an instrument of torture and death can even today provoke both disinterest and murderous hate on the same planet at the same time.
Yet if the cross is a symbol of anything, it is not disinterest nor hate, nor even of suffering or glory. It is, in fact, obviously, a symbol of love. If you have one around your neck, or on your wall, you are wearing or displaying an object that declares that God loves you and that you love God. That’s what the large cross behind me says to us all: that God loves us... this much. Whether your cross is a crucifix, with the outstretched embrace of Jesus on it, or a cross as empty as the tomb on the third day, it is pointing not only to the death of Jesus, but also to his resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we see and receive a love so amazing, so divine, which demands our soul, our life, our all.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 14th April 2017