The cross is everywhere. You find it on jewelry and T-shirts, bumper stickers and hospitals. People trace it on themselves before meals, in church, in times of trouble and even while playing sports. White crosses are lined up in endless rows at cemeteries across the land. But nowhere is this iconic symbol more prominent or more ornately adorned than in and on Christian Churches. They are made of brass and gold and silver, encrusted with jewels, embossed onto hymnals, printed in bulletins, suspended from ceilings and standing on altars. You are even likely to see one or more with a lifeless body still hanging on it.
Upon seeing this, your time-travelling friend would realize that this was not just some abstract symbol but an intentional reminder of a brutal form of execution that he knows quite well. Realizing this would surely prompt the question: "Why, on earth, would you use that as a decoration in holy places? We used it to deter criminals and to frighten enemies. Now you make it out of chocolate and marshmallows or put it on hot cross buns?!"
It is a fair question that you should have an answer to. And the Christian answer is this: We confess that Jesus Christ, the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, was crucified for us. This is why we hold the cross in such esteem.
True, a lot of other things happened to Jesus as well--both good and bad--and we don't find these icons plastered everywhere. He was laid in a manger, anointed with perfume, beaten with canes, flayed with scourges, and tied up with ropes; and yet these are not symbolized everywhere. But the crucifixion alone caused His death, and it is in His death that we have life. That is what places the cross front and center in the Christian faith.
God was insistent on the crucifixion. Previous attempts to kill Him another way failed because they were not God's way. And so, in the Christian Creed, we confess not just that Jesus died, but that He was crucified. Crucifixion was determined by God for a reason. There is something so fitting and so unique about this method of execution that God would have it no other way.
This alone is enough for us to set the picture constantly before our eyes. For by it God would visually show us His Way and Truth and Life. We can spend a lifetime looking at the crucifixion and still learn more from it. And this is what moved Paul to say, "I determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Let the poet Girolamo Savonarola end this article and be the beginning of many more of your own reflections on this most sacred symbol.
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Do we pass that cross unheeding,
Breathing no repentant vow,
Though we see You wounded, bleeding,
See Your thorn-encircled brow?
Yet Your sinless death has brought us
Life eternal, peace, and rest;
Only what Your grace has taught us
Calms the sinner’s deep distress.