The Cross

This thought is ‘unfinished’ - I’m sure I ought to have more to say, but inspiration seems to be eluding me. And it’s Good Friday, which seems like the most apposite moment on which to post this - so let’s go with what we have!

Seeing a picture from inside the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, after the fire, in which almost the only undamaged thing appeared to be the cross on the altar, I began to think about the cross and what it means.

I have written about crucifixion before, but I make no apology for writing again - it is, after all, central to the Christian faith - without that, none of the rest makes any sense. And yet, the cross itself, and what it symbolises, doesn’t make logical sense. This is what Jesus’ disciples wrestled with before (or immediately after) his death - they couldn’t grasp that being crucified was a ‘win’ - to them, expecting a revolutionary liberator in the Che Guevara mould, Jesus’ execution looked like abject defeat.

We see crosses everywhere. People wear them; they’re on the tops of church spires; in our churches; in market squares; all over the place. And we have become inured to their symbolism. They don’t actually mean very much to us, because they are so familiar.

At the time when the cross became, following on from the fish and the ChiRho ‘logos’, one of the symbols of this new religion, its adoption must have been truly shocking...

Imagine walking into a church or other place of worship and being greeted by an electric chair, or a gallows, as the most prominent object! How shocking that would be; how utterly grotesque!

And that, at the very least, might well be the degree of horror with which people seeing that symbol at the time would have reacted. Crosses were much more ‘in your face’ in society than electric chairs and gallows are nowadays; execution was a very public business in those days. The Romans would nail people up (only non-citizens, at least in theory) at almost the slightest provocation. It was an awful, degrading, method of torturing people to death in as public and humiliating way they could think of. I’m not sure it has ever been ‘bettered’. And crosses were erected in very public places - sometimes in very large numbers - for instance, after the ‘Spartacus’ slave revolt in the first century BC, there are said to have been six thousand crosses erected on the Via Appia (one of the main roads leading South-East out of Rome) - to make an example of them, and to show others what would happen if they tried to revolt against Rome.

And crosses and crucifixion were not a subject for polite conversation. The Roman orator Cicero said: “…the executioner, the veiling of heads, and the very word “cross,” let them all be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. The results and suffering from these doings as well as the situation, even anticipation, of their enablement, and, in the end, the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” (Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo, Ch.5, 16)

So, Jesus dying on a cross looks like an awful defeat... A defeat which, against any and all odds, became a most unlikely victory on the third day, when Jesus was raised from the dead.

We ought to be far more shocked by the symbol of the cross than we are.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022