Is there any symbol more ubiquitous in our culture than the cross? We see it everywhere. Although the crosses here in the church are veiled, we can detect their outlines behind the veils. We wear them on pendants around our necks; we see it in ads; some even have crosses tattooed on their bodies. Most of the time, when we see a cross, we don’t give it another thought. It may not even have religious significance for the one who wears it as jewelry.
It’s quite a curious thing, the cross as a symbol of the Christian faith, for it became popular only in the fourth century, only after Constantine had legalized Christianity, only after he had also outlawed crucifixion as a form of punishment. Up to that point, the cross stood for the power and violence of Rome. Crosses were erected outside of cities, relatively permanently, and when someone was crucified, their body remained hanging on the cross for days, even weeks, as a warning to passers-by what might happen if they resisted the Roman Empire. Now it’s become a piece of jewelry, an ornament that in the US at least becomes significant only when its presence is contested in a public space.
At the same time, it may be that for many of us the cross has become again a symbol of shame—used by conservative Christians to spread a message of hate rather than love, combined with the American flag to promote a national religion of endless war. For these reasons as well as for its overwhelming prevalence in our culture, the cross may have become meaningless, a scandal to many of us. But even then it may retain its power in subtle ways, as a symbol of particular set of understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ Christ’s death: penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that our redemption is bought by Christ’s blood; that God’s justice demands a victim who sheds his blood.
All of these ideas and more may be in our minds today as commemorate Good Friday and listen once again to John’s version of the passion narrative. We bring all of our culture’s understandings and misgivings about the cross with us as we listen to those words. All of those images and ideas shape our experience of the passion and of the liturgy of this day. But it’s helpful to remember that John’s first readers would have come to the text with a very different set of assumptions and experiences, shaped by their own experience of the cross and crucifixion, which many had likely directly witnessed. Most if not all would have at some point seen the line of crosses on roads leading out of cities or towns.
In the first century, the cross, as Paul wrote was folly and a stumbling block, a scandal. It was shame. Some of the things done to Jesus were typically done at all Roman crucifixions such as stripping one’s body of clothes (all of the property of victims was forfeit, including their clothing). The bodies were usually left on the cross after death; the flesh eaten by birds and other animals, the victim denied honorable burial. Crucifixion served as a form of entertainment—the onlookers would ridicule the victims. In Jesus’ case, he was mocked, whipped, spat upon, clad in a crown of thorns and purple robe as a travesty of kingship; he is paraded through the streets of Jerusalem carrying the cross. Everything about the crucifixion was intended to dishonor and shame him.
But John tells us a very different story as well. For all of the efforts to shame, ridicule and dishonor Jesus, John’s passion narrative depicts a Jesus who is honorable in spite of those efforts. He is in charge when the soldiers come to arrest him. He is in charge as the chief priests and then Pilate interrogate him. The purple robe and crown of thorns become symbols of his kingship. And from the cross, he behaves honorably towards his mother and the beloved disciple. He is even in charge at his death, proclaiming, It is finished, or “it is completed.” He is in control from start to finish, from his arrest to the moment of his death.
But over and above all that is John’s understanding of the cross. From the very beginning of the gospel, the crucifixion is not shame but glory. The most profound symbol of shame becomes in John a means of glory and praise, a symbol of life, not death, a symbol of love, not violence. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus says of himself and of his impending crucifixion, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
We have experienced the cross too often as a symbol of division, even hate. The cross wrapped in the American flag; the cross as a message that if you don’t believe in a certain way, you will be damned for all eternity. The reality is quite different and we must claim and proclaim that message. Before that, however, we must experience and know that reality in all of its fullness and depth. The power and meaning of the cross is not the blood, violence, and death that was on display that day on Golgotha. The power and meaning of the cross was not the blood, violence, and death that Rome displayed throughout its empire countless times for hundreds of years. The power and meaning of the cross are in this simple fact—that the cross was not, is not, the end of the story.
Jesus said, “It is finished,” but there was one more act to come in the drama. And that final act, the resurrection gave the cross its meaning. That final act, the resurrection, is ongoing in the world around us and in our lives. That final act brings to an end the realm of violence and death and offers instead the love of Jesus Christ.
The great medieval mystic and visionary Julian of Norwich, who during a near fatal illness had a powerful vision of Christ suffering on the cross. She reflected on that vision for the rest of her life and as she reflected came to understand the meaning of Christ’s suffering, the meaning of the cross. Her words are as true today as they were around six hundred years ago:
What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.