A Tale of Two Crosses
I was just in the Holy Land and I saw a lot of crosses there. Golden crosses, jewelled crosses heading up priestly processions, carved wooden passion figures depicting Christ’s agonies, crosses carved into stone, churches crowned with a cross, necklaces and earrings adorned with a cross at centre. On a minimum level, crosses segment society. They quickly differentiate the Christian community from the Muslims and the Jews. It is customary for example, to hang up a rosary in your car so that it is easily perceived what part of society you belong to.
The cross as adornment, makes no real sense. It’s popularity belies that it was a widely used instrument of shame, torture and death. John Stott has speculated that the symbol to represent Christians should logically have been a dove, a carpenter’s bench, a boat for fishing, or a cradle. After all, the cross is offensive. It speaks of shame.
I was reminded of this while out and about. I noticed one rosary hanging on the door of a tour bus, that stood out because the cross was noticeably absent. The driver who came on shift was Muslim and he removed the cross because he considered it to be offensive to his sight.
The Muslims identify Jesus as a minor prophet leading to Mohammed’s revelation. In their version of the crucifixion, Jesus did not really die. He swooned on the cross as some kind of cosmic trick, and in some versions, Judas Iscariot was magically swapped in to take his place and die. Their version of the story does not allow for any kind of shame.
Similarly, a Priest I encountered, had made a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the place where Hasidic Jews traditionally gather to pray. It is the last vestige of the Jewish Temple of Solomon which was destroyed in 70 AD. Because of the lament of those praying, it has also been dubbed the “Wailing” wall. Jesus’ tears for Jerusalem were apparently well-founded. The Priest, when he approached the wall was affronted by a Hasidic Jew who angrily demanded he remove himself. “You cannot come here with THAT!” the Jew remarked, pointing to the cross the priest was wearing. It is offensive to the Jews as much as it is to the Muslims. It confounds their understanding of the Messiah. Deuteronomy 21:23 states that “cursed his he who hangs on a tree” and for the Jews, it is unimaginable that their Messiah would be cursed by God.
It’s interesting to read the Gospel accounts and revisit the odd language that accompanies the passion narrative. When Jesus was planning his return to Jerusalem, everyone discouraged this suicide mission. But Jesus insists this must be so, that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem to “be glorified”. This of course makes no sense in the context that Jesus and everyone else could anticipate all that was going to happen there.
Central to any understanding of Christianity is the conflict between shame and glory, that the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecies would be the same conquering messiah. There is a version of atonement theology that I like best, “Christus Victor”. In this explanation of events, Jesus was actually combatting evil by taking the fight to the enemy. His voluntary death was in fact the victory that smashed evil, sin, and death once and for all.
In the Christian graveyard where I went to visit the burial site of my father-in-law, the stones are marked with a cross. And so it is in the human condition that we shall all likewise suffer, die and be buried marked with this sign - not of shame, but of hope.
“And blessed is he who does not take offence at Me.” said Jesus. (Matthew 11:6)
For we too, who bear the Cross of Christ will rise with him and also be glorified.