Despite the fact that we have sometimes focused too much on being an institution, Christianity is not an organization looking for recruits. Jesus calls us to a way of life that takes the cross as its symbol.
The cross signifies and symbolizes a way of life, but what does this cross represent? What does it mean?
We wear cross shaped jewelry. Tattoos of crosses are popular. These are typically a means of identifying or marking one as a Christian. They are a tangible and personal way of embracing faith. Before this, crosses typically marked places of worship. The cross on a steeple consecrated or indicated a place of worship.
The Cross at Ground Zero
The cross persists in our culture as a powerful symbol. When the cross is observed in our world, our art, and our culture we have some immediate notion that it is religious. When two girders in the shape of a cross were discovered in the devastation of the World Trade Center on 9/11, workers and on-lookers responded with piety and reverence. Much was written and discussed about the cross at Ground Zero.
The skull beneath the cross is typical of Orthodox iconography
When our mission team was in Bulgaria we noticed that the orthodox cathedrals were filled with depictions of biblical stories. The cross was always prominent. In most cases, there is a skull beneath the cross. It represents death and it is a sort of religious hieroglyph to denote Golgotha – the place of the skull.
Throughout history, depictions of the cross have shaped worship and how we participate in communion. Artwork surrounding the altars of cathedrals are some of the best known images of the crucifixion and the cross. Matthias Grunewald painted the Isenheim Altarpiece between 1512-1516. The altarpiece was painted for the monastery of an order of monks known for their care of the sick and those suffering from plagues. The image of Christ on the cross demonstrates suffering and seems to be diseased. The other figures, such as John the Baptist and the lamb, are also symbols. The cross for the monks who worshiped at this altar was a symbol of suffering.
The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, 1512-1516.
In 1611, Peter Paul Rubens completed a triptych titled “The Elevation of the Cross.” A group of mighty strongmen struggle to lift the cross of Christ. Surely two or three of these brawny blokes could lift the cross, but Rubens is probably making a statement. He may be signifying that the cross bears the sins of the world or that the crucifixion is a weighty matter of great importance. Yes, there is incredible action and tension being portrayed and it is fair to admire Rubens technique as a painter, but with work is not without a message.
The Elevation of the Cross by Rubens, 1611.
In this painting the cross is depicted as a most important moment in history.
Another painting that depicts the raising of the cross also has an embedded message. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (you may call him Rembrandt) painted his own take on the crucifixion in 1633. He really got into his work – literally! There are two men at the crucifixion, one in a turban and one in a painter’s beret. Both of these men resemble Rembrandt.
Raising of the Cross by Rembrandt, 1633.
A religious and devout man, Rembrandt may be confessing that because of his sinful nature that he too is responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. In Rembrant’s painting, the cross is the focus of our salvation and perhaps even our guilt.
In the 20th century, Salvador Dali attempted to combine religion, science, and art. Leaving behind his stage of melting timepieces, Dali entered a period of depicting religious scenes. His depiction of the crucifixion known as
Corpus Hypercubus by Salvador Dali, 1954.
Corpus Hypercubus is often considered his best work from this period. Completed in 1954, the Cross has been changed into a polyhedron net of a hypercube. The cross floats above a two-dimensional surface and a lone woman offers adoration to the figure on the cross. The cross (or hypercube?) in Dali’s painting is transcendent and mystical. It is heavenly. It is no longer resembles the contorted suffering and gritty detail of Grunewald’s altarpiece painting.
Even without a crucified Christ, a cross symbolizes something about Christianity (even if we are not completely sure what that is). Likewise, the pose of the crucifixion has become a visual reference to the crucifixion and Christianity even if a cross is not present. Among the many movies and images that depict a crucified-pose are Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Omega Man (1971). The main characters are each a type of messiah or savior. The director of each movie communicates that fact without words simply by showing the character in a crucifixion style pose at some point.
The image of the cross and the crucifixion persists in our culture. Still, what is the way of the cross? What does it mean? We need to get past the veneer of religiosity and go deeper than a simple visual shorthand to faith. We must enter into deeper reflection and imitation of the significance of the cross.
Crucifixion, Seen from the Cross by James Tissot, 1890.
There’s one more image of the crucifixion that I think unique in art history. Not a well-known piece but one that triggers reflection because it is so different. In 1890, the watercolor painter James Tissot painted the crucifixion. However, he does not show Christ or the cross. His painting of the crucifixion is shown from the perspective of the Messiah on the Cross.
In this image we are no longer permitted the safe distance of spectators or movie-watchers. The cross is cannot be reduced to a symbol or artifact. We are not even allowed to stand reverently as pious worshipers. Instead, we must join Christ on the cross and see the world and all of humanity through the event of the crucifixion. We see the world from the cross, just as Jesus did. An endless collection of humanity stares onward, some with pity, some with scorn, some with reverence. Others are just doing their job and going about their business. What may we gain from this perspective about the way of the cross?
1. The Way of the Cross calls us away from sin and to true righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24). Week after week in our worship assemblies, the cross becomes nothing more that a spiritual bailout for the debt of our sins collected each week. Unfortunately, this overemphasis on indebtedness and guilt stunts our growth in righteousness. The apostle Peter reflected on the cross and called it the beginning of a life of righteousness, not just the end of sinfulness.
2. The Way of the Cross calls us to reconciliation and peace. (Eph. 2:16). If Christ died for all of humanity, how can we justify hostility? Don’t try to justify it or you will shame yourself. When Jesus looks at all of us from the cross and we know that he is reconciling all of humanity to God, then it makes no sense that should hate one another. We often divide and disput over minor issue that have nothing to do with the cross. We should discuss these issues, but resorting to division when the cross stands among us as a death to hostility is truly sinful and shameful.
3. The Way of the Cross calls us away from the world and its self-righteous values. (Gal. 6:14). Rather than emphasize our own ability to accomplish great things, the cross reminds us that we are at our best when we trust in Christ. Our good deeds do not save us. One of the criticisms of Christianity from outsiders is that God unfairly rewards good behavior with heaven. There’s no such teaching in Scripture. The cross shatters the notion that we can justify ourselves through religious deeds. Rather, trust and obedience to God is the way of the cross.
4. The Way of the Cross calls us to endurance and faithfulness. (Heb. 12:2-3). Following Christ is not always east but it is worthwhile. In those moments when we grow weary and we are ridiculed or persecuted for our faith, we can look to Christ. He endured the cross. He had the power and the authority to end it, but he had to pioneer the way of the cross for the rest of humanity and bring an end to the way of violence and the way of “might makes right.” It is difficult for us to stay on the way of the cross in a world that promises peace through strength and superiority. We will be called haters and when we affirm that obedience to God matters. We will be called unpatriotic when we pledge our allegiance to Christ. We will be called naive when we believe that ministry to the poor and weak might change the world. Consider Christ and do not lose heart.
5. The Way of the Cross is discipleship. (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is often confused for self-hatred. Likewise, self-love is confused with indulgence. Discipline leads to maturity and discipline involves self-denial. Not for the purpose of punishment, but for the sake of growth and maturity. A disciple is not a member of a church, and making disciples is not a matter of recruiting people to a religious organization. A disciple is a learner and follower. Jesus himself said that following him involves taking up our cross. That sort of talk even disturbed his disciples like Peter and Paul who could not understand the Way of the Cross at first. It was, and is, scandalous to some degree. It is a high calling, but a calling to everyone that excludes none. There is no other way to save our lives. Our own attempts to save ourselves will end badly. But if we give our lives to God as Jesus did (the cross) then God preserves life.
The cross separates us from the illusion of this world that offers us the false promise of happiness in “doing whatever we will.” The cross and the resurrection affirms the truth and the better way of “doing what God wills.”