As Catholics (and as many other Christians), we think nothing shameful about wearing a cross or crucifix (unless, of course, we’re reluctant to “identify” as believers). But do we think of what we are doing and saying when we wear it?
Let’s be clear: the cross was the ultimate instrument of death by torture. For a (very rough) comparison, would we be proud (or even willing) to wear around our necks or on our lapels a miniature guillotine, or a syringe/hypodermic needle, or an electric chair, or a noose?
For too many of us, the cross has become sanitized by the distance of time, and therefore socially acceptable. Today we can wear crosses or crucifixes that are made of gold or silver, perhaps also encrusted with precious stones. There’s no threat there! But let’s go back to the 1st century for a minute.
Galatians is a letter of St Paul written very early on in the history of Christianity—perhaps only 20 years after the Crucifixion. Paul (and everyone else in the Roman Empire) knew exactly what this kind of death entailed. Yet he can tell the Galatians: “God forbid that I glory in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 6:14). In a similar message to the Corinthians (and in a letter also very early), Paul declares that he “…resolved to know nothing while I was with [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Paul knew what those images would call up—and gold/jewels were not part of the picture.
In our times, perhaps no group understands this more clearly than the propagators of the “gospel of prosperity,” led by Joel Osteen, among others. It’s for this reason they have no crosses (with or without a corpus) in their “churches.” The same is true of the so-called “seeker churches”—after all, we don’t want folks to be scared by the possibility of having to commit, at some level, to self-sacrifice!
Even in our church, the crucifixes we have (alongside the altar and above the west window) are very sanitized—no suffering, no agony, no sense of torture—just Jesus there on the cross, with no physical stresses except for the fact of His being fixed there. The opposite extreme is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which is not based on the Gospels but on private revelations to a religious. It’s also rooted, I am afraid to say, in Gibson’s own predilection for movie violence that borders or (or crosses the border of) sado-masochism. Its one singular virtue is its lack of “neatness.”
What’s the real bottom line here? I think it’s simply that we have forgotten the depth of the love of God in Jesus Christ for us that enabled the Lord to undergo this horrific death for the sake of sinners (re-read Romans 5:1-11). Are we worth it? Many of us would think that answer is no; God, it seems, thinks otherwise. We glory in the Cross because Jesus Christ saw in us people needing a Savior; He was willing to exemplify what salvation means and looks like; He calls us to share His life. The Resurrection validates everything I’m saying here. It is the main and only reason that we can glory in the Cross—it is NOT the end of the story!