Trivializing The Cross

I often see someone wearing a cross on a chain around the neck. I hope it's a sign of faith. Recently I saw a man with a cross on his cufflinks and a woman with little crosses as bangles on her bracelet. I also saw hundreds of crosses on a wallpaper border. So, good uses and questionable uses? I really wondered where the boundary to the trivial is. If familiarity does not breed contempt, it may breed indifference so the shame and glory of the cross are lost.

In antiquity, death on the cross was limited to foreigners, people of the lowest class : particularly slaves. Cicero, who died just before the birth of Christ, argued that "the very word 'cross' should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things, but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen." For Cicero, death on a cross was "the most disgusting penalty." Therefore the sign of the cross is a sign of extreme shame. (Hebrews 12:2).

For Jews and gentiles, the cross was a major stumbling block. Nothing in the Jewish sources indicates that the Messiah should suffer such a fate. Quite the contrary! Far from being the Chosen One, the Anointed, the One sent by God, the Jews understood that the one crucified was cursed. Saint Paul is quite justified in saying that Jesus became "a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13). How could one proclaim to the Jews that the one so cursed is the long-expected Messiah, the Son of God, risen from the dead? For the gentiles it was utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). They were invited to believe that a convicted felon...was God's only Son, the Lord of the Universe, the coming cosmic judge.

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ portrays the physical horror of Jesus' suffering, something not to be forgotten. But if we stop there, something of great importance has been lost. The Romans intended a painful death; but beyond that they intended to degrade, debase, disgrace the victim, break his spirit.

From the gospel texts we cannot determine whether Jesus was naked on the cross. Usually Romans crucified their victims completely stripped. Possibly out of sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities, the soldiers used a loincloth. But Melito of Sardis, who visited the Holy Land in the second century and learned from the locals, wrote, "The Master has been treated in an unseemly fashion. His body was naked, not even deemed worthy of a covering, that (his nakedness) might not be seen. Therefore the lights (of heaven) turned away and the day darkened that it might hide him who was stripped on the cross."

Before his conversion, Paul forcefully, even violently (Galatians 1:13) came up against the disgrace and shame of the cross. He persecuted the Christians for the ridiculous : indeed blasphemous : claim that the Messiah was the man who subverted the law of Moses and died in a felon's shame between thieves. The followers of Jesus, Paul believed, had been disastrously misled. What changed Paul's mind was nothing less than a shattering experience on the road to Damascus: "I was laid hold of by Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:2). "Have I not seen the Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1).

The intense anger Paul felt toward Jesus and his followers was transformed when God revealed his Son to him (Galatians 1:16) in a blinding light. Now under the power of a direct experience of the Risen Christ, he was led to the inescapable conviction, contrary to his earlier contemptuous rejection of the resurrection, that the Jesus who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate was indeed the Messiah and was alive.

What is astonishing is that Paul came to this conviction not despite the cross and its shame, but because of it. The cross turned his whole religious system on its head. What he thought folly, he now recognizes as wisdom. What he thought weakness he now recognizes as power. What he thought shame is now glory (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). Because of the cross, the name of Jesus is "above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend" (Philippians 2:9-10). Every human claim, every dimension of life bends the knee: relationships, family, money, career, sex : all come under judgment of the cross.

Lents is about our baptismal and Eucharistic sharing in the mystery of Christ's Passover from death to life. During Lent we cannot renew our sharing in the dying and rising of Jesus without renewing the radical claim the cross makes on us. The depth of change in our lives that claim demands is indicated by the transformation of folly into wisdom, weakness into power and shame into glory. Trinkets do not make radical claims!

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