At Home in Lent ~ Good Friday: Crucifix
Badge of love
For Christ did not send me to baptise but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:17–25
Many people have crucifixes, in the bedroom, in the hallway, anywhere really. Some schools have them in every classroom, and many people wear one around their neck. 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 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 the wearing of it is fundamental to their identity.
Recent controversial legal cases that have presumed to prescribe whether employees of airlines and hospitals may wear a cross have 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 sometimes seen as a symbol of faith that might cause offence and that a citizen may in some circumstances be banned from wearing, either visibly or 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 2005 a school in Derby suspended a student when she refused to remove a cross she was wearing. Three years later, a court in Spain ruled that crosses should be removed from state schools.
On the other hand, in the Canadian province of Quebec in 2008, a judgement declared that it was not a breach of others’ human rights to have crucifixes in public places, such as schools, law courts and parliament buildings. Likewise, in an Italian case in 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes are acceptable in state classrooms, describing them as an ‘essentially passive symbol’ with no obvious religious influence. Still, 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 ruling that to manifest one’s religion is a ‘fundamental right’. After nearly 2,000 years, the cross of Christ is still 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 hung on a wall. While crucifixes were originally made as objects to aid devotion and assist prayer, over time 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 they go unnoticed. As such, as the apostle Paul might put it, the cross is emptied of its power.
In this, the fate of the cross in modern society mirrors the attitudes shown towards it in its own day. It is an embarrassment, emptied of its power and meaning. The cross is not a symbol, an ornament or a 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 laughable.
The cross is as offensive now as it was at the time of the first Christians. To Jews, the fact that Jesus was crucified made him cursed (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), while to Greeks (non-Jews, or Gentiles) the idea that someone who is God would allow himself to be crucified is utter nonsense. Gods are powerful, almost magical, beings to be worshipped, feared and adored, 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, 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 they did, in spite of early obstacles and much martyrdom, get everywhere, such that now the story is so ingrained in western culture that the cross has been emptied of its power, as so many people nowadays have no idea 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 the depiction of an instrument of torture and death can even today provoke both indifference and murderous hate on the same planet at the same time.
Yet, if the cross is a symbol of anything, it is not indifference or hate, nor even 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. 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. In that death and resurrection we see and receive a love so amazing, so divine, it demands our soul, our life, our all.
Jesus, by your cross and resurrection you have redeemed the world. As you embraced us on the cross, may we so embrace all who suffer or are in need of grace. Amen
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.
Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018