04/16/2012 09:16 am ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

The Cross at the Center Of Faith

Lately I have been thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus and how such a macabre symbol of execution as the cross has become a symbol of hope for believers in Jesus.

As a symbol, the cross is both bizarre and extraordinary. It is a bizarre symbol because well into the third century the cross -- crucifixion -- continued to be the common means of executing people who were condemned to death for reasons of crime or treason. It was such a shameful way to die that it was reserved for second class citizens and non-Roman citizens of the Roman empire. Crucifixion was relegated for use in executing criminals and subversives who were second-class residents, non-citizens, aliens and people of the occupied territories. So it is little wonder that St. Paul refers to the significance of the cross as being despicable or foolishness to the Greeks (Roman citizens) and insulting or offensive to the Jews (a non-citizen people subservient to Rome).

Yet by the second century, among both Greek and Jewish followers of Jesus Christ, the cross had become the symbol of their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. Among the early church fathers whose writings reflect this was Tertullian, a North African lawyer and theologian who wrote, "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross]." Far from being used in a perfunctory or superstitious way, making the sign of the cross was a courageous sign of allegiance to Jesus Christ above any allegiance to the emperor and the state. Against all threats of ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, torture and death, those who believed and followed Jesus signified their life commitment by the sign of the cross.

During the third century, after Emperor Constantine the Great embraced the Christian faith, the symbol of the cross became the symbol of the state. Under his official mandate, the cross was emblazoned on the shields of his military forces and became the symbol of the "Holy Roman Empire." While it can be argued that this marked the beginning of a cultural and historical process that has detracted from the original power and meaning of the symbol, the cross has continued as the central symbol of the Christian faith. Notwithstanding the disparate and often disparaging ways in which cultures have regarded the cross during the past 20 centuries, for followers of Jesus the cross remains the unique central and potent symbol of their faith in Him.

The cross is an extraordinary symbol -- rich in history, loaded with meaning and counter-intuitive in the face of power and wealth as the enduring icons of success. Whenever I make the sign of the cross, I am profoundly conscious of identifying with Jesus Christ and standing in the flow of Christians from different backgrounds and traditions who have tenaciously and courageously confronted the idolatry and the evil of their times under the shadow of the cross.

It is noteworthy that different Christian traditions depict the cross in varying ways, and while the depictions and styles of the cross may vary, the cross still remains their symbolic center point. As I have studied and contemplated the variations by which the cross is presented, I have become enriched in my understanding of the amazing significance of the cross.

One of the most recognizable depictions of the cross in Roman Catholic tradition is the crucifix comprised of a cross with the figure of Jesus on it. The crucifix powerfully focuses my thoughts on the injustice and torture inflicted on Jesus -- Jesus the Innocent Victim; Jesus the Wounded Healer; Jesus the suffering Savior; Jesus who suffered and died, taking upon Himself the sins of the world, suffering the consequence of my guilt. When I meditate on this cross I think also of the cogent words of St. Paul, who saw in his own suffering continuity with the suffering of Jesus -- a fellowship of suffering in solidarity with Jesus for the sake of others. I am reminded that the grace and mercy I have received through the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is a grace I do not deserve, cannot earn and can never repay. In gratitude I can only follow in sacrificial service with Jesus, knowing that to follow may include suffering for the sake of truth and justice and compassion for others. The Jesus I follow suffered enormous injustice, humiliation and abandonment on the way to bringing good news to the poor, and freedom to the oppressed and dispossessed.

The cross in Eastern Orthodox tradition is typically very ornate, often magnificently gilded and jeweled. This depiction of the cross speaks to me of the glory and majesty of Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the One who has won the cosmic victory over all injustice and evil through His death on the cross. The crude and cruel cross itself has been transformed from defeat into victory. As I contemplate this cross, my mind becomes filled with thoughts of Jesus who told the disciples that He was leaving them in order to prepare a place in His Kingdom and that He would return for them so that they could be together with Him forever. I take courage from the victory of Jesus and my heart fills with joy and expectation in realizing that the troubles in our world are not the final word. Through the cross I am in awe of the incalculable beauty and the unspeakable glory of the One who rules the universe and whose Kingdom will be fully realized. He is the One who was, who is and who is to come -- Ruler over all.

The product of the Protestant Reformation is a simple unadorned cross, an empty cross resonating with the profound proclamation that Jesus died but is not dead. The cross is stripped of its terrible finality. Jesus Christ is risen! This is the Easter cross that celebrates the continuing reality of Jesus' triumph over the cross and His resurrection from brutality and death. As I meditate on this I am overcome by the realization that this Jesus who overcame suffering and evil is alive and present with me, giving me strength and hope and infusing me with new life here and now. I am gripped by the exclamation of St. Paul who longed to know Christ and the power of His resurrection in the midst of all the forces of oppression, turmoil and difficulty that confronted him. Followers of Jesus are participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Christ -- as St. Paul says, "through whom we live and move and have our being."

Another common depiction of the cross that often corresponds to Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions is the cross emblazoned with the outline of a dove or flame of fire. This is the cross of Jesus' ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It speaks of Jesus who victoriously completed His mission and has returned to the glory of the Father. Yet He promised never to abandon His disciples as orphans, but to send to them an advocate, a Counselor, the Holy Spirit who would be with them and empower them to continue the work He gave them to do. The church was born at Pentecost, when Peter and the disciples were emboldened and equipped by the Holy Spirit to preach the good news in every language, to heal the sick and to serve the poor. The story of those disciples and the early church is the thrilling story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I fix my eyes on the meaning of this depiction of the cross, I find myself rejoicing in the presence of the Holy Spirit who has energized and re-energized the church throughout the ages and who is working through the church in our day too.

You and I live under the sign of the cross -- the cross of Jesus Christ, which has stood and continues to stand at the center of our faith. It is the cross at the center of our various Christian traditions, the cross that is the story of the church. It is at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ that we are reconciled to God and to each other. It is in the way of the cross that we continue to follow Jesus -- our Wounded Healer, Lord of lords and King of kings, Our Resurrected Savior, the One who has not left us but who continually accompanies and empowers us by His Holy Spirit.