Friday, February 11, 2005

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross....or is it the Old Rugged Cross....

Over at The Parish, Greg gives a few thoughts on the symbology of the cross. This inspired me to make this post.

So it's Lent, and that means churches will be dusting off some of those old hymns about the cross. In addition, some will sing about being bathed in blood, but that's for another post. Let's stick with the cross for a little bit.

I used to wear a simple pewter cross around my neck. I think I know where that necklace is, but I haven't worn it for a couple years. Our sanctuaries are adorned with gold and silver crosses of various shapes and sizes, beautifully handcrafted and shiny. Some have found more creative ways to portray the cross. Ash Wednesday saw black crosses smeared on foreheads and palms. We can buy crosses made of nails bundled together, or crosses made from dried palm leaves. Over the centuries the cross has taken many forms: Celtic, Iron, the Pax cross at the top of the blog, etc.

A few years ago I saw a very different incarnation of the crosses I'd grown up seeing. A large wooden cross was placed in the sanctuary, carved roughly from two wooden beams. No purple cloth hung from it. It hadn't been sanded down or polished. If you touched it you could end up with a splinter. It was placed in the corner of the sanctuary, almost an intruder into the more beautiful surroundings of stained glass and mohogany, and as such it demanded congregants' attention. It truly was an old rugged cross. Nothing really wondrous about it.

Let's remember, after all, the cross is a symbol of execution, of humiliation, of death. Over the years we've cleaned it up, dressed it up, sterilized it, made it more presentable. But ultimately its true nature can't be concealed. Not only did Jesus die on this piece of torture, but perhaps some 10,000 others.

I'll come clean. I have a small polished olivewood cross hanging in my office. There are crosses etched into my wedding ring. I'm not exempt from this attempt to make the cross look more pleasant. And resurrection notwithstanding, the cross is at its core a very ugly thing. We can say, 'But he is risen! The cross has lost its power! We don't have to focus on its ugliness any more!' I say we can't use the resurrection as an escape from the tragedy and violence of Good Friday (and what moron decided to call it 'Good?').

The events of Holy Week and Easter go hand in hand. The resurrection means nothing without the cross. Rather than looking around the cross, we need to look through it, contemplate its true meaning as a form of Roman oppression and violence, to reclaim it as a horrible indispensible piece of Jesus' tragic end. There is a lot of power in surveying the wondrous cross for what it really is. And for those of us who keep prettier versions of it around the house, its that much more important.