A message from our Minister, The Rev Dr Neil Dougall: April 2019
The Enigma of the Cross
Robin Jensen is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She specialises in the history of Christian art. Last year her latest book, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy was published. I’ve just finished reading it. It is very well researched and full of fascinating details. Yet, I realise, I am no closer to being able to explain the enigma of the cross.
Romans crucified criminals but didn’t invent crucifixion. The Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians had used it centuries before and capital punishment is as old as human society. While all forms of capital punishment have the same outcome the differences between them are huge. Jensen describes crucifixion as ‘a degrading, slow, and especially painful form of execution’ (The Cross, 2018, p 8).
The cross, therefore, in the ancient world, was a symbol of shame and degradation, of suffering and defeat. That Jesus died on the cross was scandalous. The apostle Paul summarises the attitude of the day when he says that ‘the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:23 ).
That Jesus died on the cross, even though they declared that God raised him from the dead, was a major problem for the first Christians. To Jewish ears it was a sign that Jesus was cursed by God. To Gentile ears it was absurd that someone who was divine could have suffered like this.
When, today, organizations are faced with this kind of awkward situation they employ PR firms. A PR firm would create a campaign which would focus on the empty tomb. Logos would be designed that show the stone rolled away and the tomb empty on Easter morning. Messages would be crafted that would take the attention away from Good Friday and place it on Easter Sunday.
We don’t know what was discussed and considered in the 100 years after Jesus death and resurrection. All we know is that somehow, during that period, the cross emerged as the identifying badge of the Jesus movement. Many other badges could have been chosen. It could have been the manger Jesus was laid in when he was born. It could have been the empty tomb. It could have been Jesus ascending to heaven. It could have been many other things too.
Out of all these possibilities the cross emerged. Not only did it emerge, it remained. It has endured for 2000 years. To this day the cross is the symbol of Christian faith. It is one of the most widely replicated and broadly recognised symbols on the planet.
Why is it that something which is a symbol of shame and defeat should have been chosen? Why is it that a symbol that should have nothing but negative connotations turns out to be overwhelmingly positive? How did it come about that something that was so awful came to be seen so positively? This is the enigma of the cross.
This Easter, as we do every year, we gather at the foot of the cross. We realise we are witnessing something profound and sacred. As the Son of God dies we hear him cry, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30 ).
What do these words mean? Is it an admission of defeat – ‘I gave it my all, but it wasn’t enough’? Is it a declaration of surrender – ‘I did what I could and it’s over now’? Is it a shout of victory - ‘I have completed the work God gave me to do’?
The ear of faith hears a shout of victory. Jesus came to save humans from their sin. He could only do that by dying for them. What looks like a shattering defeat turns out to be a fantastic victory.
It is this conviction that has made the cross central. Despite the reservations of the realists the cross was chosen. Despite the difficulties it created the cross kept being used by the first Christians. One way or another the death of Jesus is what our faith revolves around. There’s no getting away from it, the cross lies at the heart of our faith.
The hymn writer John Bowring (1792-1872) captures this as well as anyone.
In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time,
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.
‘Carrying his own cross, Jesus went out to the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle’ (John 19:17-18 ).
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