The Powerful Symbol of the Cross

Easter is upon us. Christ is risen. Clark, our Director of Creative Arts,
shares his thoughts on the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

 

 

Symbols can serve as powerful visual representations of an idea or belief. Once an object is associated with something recognizable, it begins to take on a new level of meaning and significance. On any road trip, simply look for the Golden Arches along the freeway and you immediately know where to find a hamburger. In the political arena, images of donkeys and elephants take on a new dimension of meaning. We associate the Statue of Liberty and Scales of Justice with important principles of fairness and freedom. An image of a hammer and sickle may invoke different sentiments. Swastikas and white hoods have been used to symbolize great acts of organized cruelty and hatred. Symbols can be incredibly powerful once they have been associated with an idea.  

The symbol of the cross is a meaningful symbol in Christianity. As we approach Easter Sunday, churches worldwide will proudly display the image of the cross. The meaning of this important symbol has changed dramatically since it was used in Roman times. Initially, the cross represented Roman authority and power. The cross was used in the ancient practice of crucifixion, a violent method of execution where a person was bound, or nailed, to a plank of wood and left to hang until dead. Crucifixion was meant to show the power of Roman rule and to deter those who disobeyed or posed a threat. In its original context, the cross represented power, authority, and terror.

We are in the midst of Holy Week, where we memorialize what Christ did for us on the cross. Jesus radically transformed the symbolism of this object, changing the association from one of power and control to one of sacrifice and resurrection. Jesus’s entire life was marked by radical transformation and shattering expectations. He came as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, but He came in a completely different way than was expected. Opinions differed among His contemporaries, but most believed that the Messiah would come as a powerful political ruler. Many hoped that Jesus would overthrow Roman rule and reestablish the throne of David. In contrast, Jesus taught to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus spent time with tax collectors; he showed compassion to a Samaritan woman, crossing cultural and gender-based boundaries. Jesus was incredibly radical and transformative.

“The full impact of Easter cannot be appreciated without feeling the weight of Good Friday, when Jesus was left to hang and die on the cross.”

The pinnacle of Jesus’s life on earth was His death on the cross. Jesus’s radical behavior angered the religious establishment to the point that they conspired to have Him killed. Holy Week began when He entered Jerusalem knowing full well what awaited Him there. Jesus was tried, tortured, and crucified on a cross. He was treated like a criminal. He was verbally and physically assaulted, and humiliated. I cannot fully comprehend how shocked and disappointed His disciples must have been. This was their Messiah, the one who would reestablish David’s throne. The full impact of Easter cannot be appreciated without feeling the weight of Good Friday, when Jesus was left to hang and die on the cross.

Then, after three days, Jesus was resurrected! The tomb was empty! Jesus was physically resurrected after suffering and dying to atone for our sins. Jesus, in this one great act of sacrifice, redefined the meaning of the cross. He changed the Roman symbol of death and terror into one of new life and atonement. Jesus did challenge Roman rule in a radical, unexpected way: He transformed the empire at an ideological level. Jesus, the Messiah, changed our view of the cross. It now symbolizes the power of resurrection. It symbolizes the moment when a sovereign God gave up His rights and entered, physically, into human history. It symbolizes a moment when God provided a way back into right relationship with Him. This Easter, our church will proudly display the symbol of the cross as we celebrate what Jesus has done for us. I pray that it will serve as a powerful reminder of the love, mercy, creativity, and transformative nature of the God we serve.