April 3, 2022

Lent in Plain Sight, VI: Cross

Passage: Matthew 27:32–37

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Maybe you’ve seen the Tik Tok reel showing a young woman who does not look like the brightest bulb in the chandelier. She asks, “Where do I get one of those little T’s on a gold chain?”

The off-camera voice says, “You mean a cross?” She says, “Across from where?”

We can forgive her confusion. Perhaps her unspoken question is, “Why would anyone wear an instrument of execution around her neck? Why do you put one in every church in Christendom?”

How would you respond if there were an electric chair on our altar? Or if you saw someone with a little lethal injection hypodermic needle hanging on a chain around her neck?

Yet somehow the cross has become the central icon of the faith in every corner of Christendom, from the Pentecostal storefront church in LA to the Orthodox Cathedral in Kyiv. We don’t know what Jesus’ cross looked like, but over the centuries, it has unleashed the imaginations of Christian iconographers.

The most common is the Latin Cross, which looks like a lower-case ‘t’. The Tau Cross looks like a capital ‘T’, with the  horizontal beam set atop the vertical post (Tau is the Greek letter ‘T’).

In the thirteenth century, the Crusaders were fond of the Jerusalem Cross. Do you know why there are five crosses in the Jerusalem Cross? They represent the five wounds of Christ, in both hands, both feet, and pierced side.

The Orthodox cross has three horizontal beams: a small one at the top to represent the sign above his head (“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”), a longer one in the middle for his arms, and another one at the bottom to signify the crossbeam for his feet. Do you know why the lowest beam is crooked? They say he was in such pain that he pressed down on it in agony.

St. Patrick and his minions featured the Celtic Cross: a Latin Cross with a nimbus around the joint. The nimbus was a pagan symbol for the natives of Ireland and represents the beams of the sun. Patrick incorporated it into the icon to show that the cross was for them too.

There is also the X-shaped Cross of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, and the symmetrical, square-shaped Cross of St. George, the dragon-slaying patron saint of England.

Together, they form the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom.

How did the Cross become the central icon of our faith?  It’s because the way the Bible tells the story, Jesus’ death is at least as important as his life and his resurrection. In fact, the four Gospels, these four brief Jesus biographies, express such an inordinate interest in his death that they have often been described as Passion Stories with an Extended Introduction.

In the Gospel of John, for instance, the story of Jesus’ life ends at Chapter 12. Then St. John spends the next nine chapters describing the last four days of Jesus’ life—from the Last Supper on Thursday until Resurrection on Sunday. Twelve chapters about his whole life, 33 years birth till the Last Supper; then nine chapters about four days. A Passion story with an extended introduction.

This disproportionate emphasis on Jesus’ death is odd when you stop to consider that Christians have never really understood why his death is supposed to be so meaningful to us. Why did Jesus have to die?

Over the centuries, the Christian Church has proposed all sorts of intricate theological hypotheses to explain why Jesus had to die. Most commonly the Church suggests that Jesus died as a ransom for broken, wayward humanity. Jesus died “for us”—pro nobis, in Latin. Jesus died on our behalf. Jesus died so that we would not have to. In offending Infinite Goodness, humanity has accrued Infinite Debt. Only the death of the perfect, innocent God-Man will satisfy a vengeful Deity.

Other times, the Christian Church has talked about Jesus’ death as the integral incident in a great, gigantic, cosmic Armageddon between the Powers of Good and the Powers of Evil. Humanity gets pinioned in a great struggle between the Light Side of the Force and the Dark Side. At the cross, heaven outwits hell. At Golgotha, God lets Satan kill his Son, which makes Satan think he has won Armageddon, but it was all a twisted joke. God trades all of humanity for God’s only begotten Son, but it is a trick. April Fools!!

But maybe it’s a little simpler than that. Maybe God came down from on high to meet us disguised as a common Nazarene carpenter not to satisfy the wrath of a vengeful deity, nor to win a victory in an apocalyptic war between the unseen, imagined powers going on above us, around us, and without us; rather, to show us not just what humanity should be like, but also what divinity itself is like.

God wants to show us what happens when perfect innocence confronts the direst, most vainglorious villainy we’re capable of. At the cross, God shows us that God’s singular, inimitable avatar would rather love than hate, would rather forgive than avenge, would rather die than kill. At the cross God shows us what unmatched, everlasting victories can surge up out of apparent defeat. “Do not be bamboozled by appearances,” says God at the cross. “I have my own ways. What looks like sheer calamity might be a plan I laid eons before the mighty oceans themselves gushed up from the primordial depths. Just look what I can do with unmitigated malice.”

Look, I don’t want to put lipstick on the pig of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is no other way to describe it than the crucifixion of a sovereign land, with war crimes. But does God have anything to do with it?  Maybe not.

On the other hand, one journalist recently pointed out that when he invaded Ukraine, Vladimir Putin wanted to become the legendary Father of a new, expanded, glorious Russian Empire, the Soviet Union Redux, but what’s happened instead is that he has become the father of a new Ukrainian nation.[1]  Ukraine was always Ukraine, but since the invasion, the Ukrainian-ness of Ukraine has redoubled.

Not only that, but Vladimir Putin has somehow managed to weld the 30 bickering, obstreperous nations of NATO into one indivisible unity. Before the invasion, they were all like “No! No! No! You’re wrong!” and since they’re all like “Yes! Yes! Yes! Let’s do it that way!” This is the worst thing he’s done so far, for the world and for his own beloved land.

Before malice can be defeated, it has to come out into the open. Malice has to be seen for what it is, and once we’ve seen malice for what it truly is, we must say “No more!” That’s what happened at Golgotha with the crown of thorns, the nails of iron, and the cross of wood. Malice revealed itself for what it is.

In March of 1965, a 36-year-old Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, and another 25-year-old Baptist minister named John Lewis, later Congressman Lewis, led 600 people on a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, but got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, where Sheriff Jim Clark and an over-militarized police force met them with nightsticks, bullwhips, and tear gas.

Television cameras and print journalists broadcast images and descriptions of the carnage across the globe, which horrified people of good will everywhere. It was a terrible day, but it was the beginning of the end for voter discrimination in America—at least until now.

Evil can only be defeated when it can no longer hide in the shadows. When the world sees evil for what it is in the naked glare of sunlight, it begins to die. Evil is like a vampire; it thrives by night, but it cowers and shrivels in the light of day. That’s what happened at the cross. Jesus died for ours sins because once he was willing to unveil them for us, we had to renounce them.

You probably knew this, but if I ever knew it, I’d forgotten the irony that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named for a Confederate Army General who later became the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Dragon for the Realm of Alabama. The Klan was comprehensively crucified on Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Near the end of Shakespeare’s magnum opus King Lear, with Lear’s enemies closing in, the Great Abdicator finally realizes that Goneril and Regan, his favorite daughters, turn out to be perfidious and his ultimate undoing, while Cordelia, the scorned, banished child, has been ever faithful.

When she comes to rescue Lear with her armies, at great peril to herself, Lear says, “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense.”[2]

That’s why the Cross is the central icon of our faith. Upon such sacrifices, my friends, the gods themselves throw incense.

[1] Steven Erlanger, “Putin’s War on Ukraine Is About Ethnicity and Empire,” The New York Times, March 16, 2022.

[2] William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, sc. iii. Full disclosure: I learned this connection between Lear and the Passion story from Frederick Buechner, in Speak What You Feel (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 132–133.

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.