When the movie The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, most of my believing friends rushed out to see it. I made a decision not to see it, and I still haven’t. My reasons are hard to explain. I had concerns about what I had read about the film’s production, some of the extra-biblical sources that were used, how graphic the violence and suffering were, etc. But my biggest problem was that I was uncomfortable with the intimacy. I didn’t feel right about the idea that we could get inside of the mind and heart of Jesus in that moment, to be capable as mere humans of understanding what he was feeling and thinking. I felt that we were intruding on his very personal holy space.
Ambivalence about the symbol of the cross is not unique to me. During the first two hundred years of church history, the cross made believers keenly aware that they were likely to suffer persecution, possibly even martyrdom, for coming out as Christians. They attempted to replace the cross with more hopeful symbols. They were trying to affirm that the cross is not the final word; the victory of the empty tomb speaks of God’s ultimate triumph in us and through us.
And yet, the cross emerged as the universal symbol of Christianity for two reasons. First, it’s on the cross that the real work of salvation was accomplished. In some mysterious way, the price for all our sins was paid through Jesus’ suffering and death. Second, we as humans are still living in the shadow of sin, suffering and mortality, and the cross reminds us that we are not alone. So, representations of the cross are seen wherever Christians live – in their churches, in their jewelry, in their artwork, in their personal devotions.
The Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries included a rejection of many of the practices and traditions of the Catholic Church that obscured the simplicity of the cross. I agree with most of the impulses of the Reformation leaders, but sometimes they went too far. For one thing, they moved away from the popular and meaningful crucifix, the cross symbol including an image of Jesus still hanging on it. The reformers insisted that that the symbol should be the empty cross, showing that Jesus’ salvation work was complete, as demonstrated by the Easter empty tomb. This is true as a matter of correct theology, of course, but I believe we Protestants have lost something by not reminding ourselves all the time that, whatever suffering we’re going through, Jesus is constantly feeling our pain along with us. That’s what the crucifix says.
Another way we Protestants have distanced ourselves from the power of the cross symbol is by rejecting the practice of “crossing ourselves,” using the sign of the cross in many life situations. Certainly, Catholics and other liturgical Christians often use this as a perfunctory way of “praying” without really praying in their hearts. Sometimes, crossing oneself can even be an act of superstition. But for a person with any degree of spiritual awareness, this simple act can be a way of bringing faith into any situation of life, making Jesus’ sacrifice relevant minute-by-minute.
We have a cross at the front of our church sanctuary. Right now, it’s draped with a purple cloth. This is in keeping with tradition in liturgical churches during Lent (the four weeks before Easter). Baptist churches don’t usually do that, but we’re stretching. If we continue to follow tradition, the drape will be changed to black for Good Friday and white for Easter. (We’re amateurs at this, so it may not happen that way.) This is one more way to refocus our attention on the meaning of our beloved cross symbol.
Our Good Friday Evening Service will continue this focus on the cross on which Jesus died. As part of our worship that evening, we will share in the Lord’s Table experience. We’ll end our service by singing the familiar and comforting words
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown.
— Pastor George Van Alstine