The Cross: Sign of God’s Life
A Good Friday meditation on the Cross by commenter Greg Mockeridge.
Out of all Christian symbols, the sign of the Cross is by far the most significant. In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths, the blessings given by priests, which are believed to convey actual grace, are given with the sign of the Cross.
The Cross also symbolizes one of the cruelest forms of capital punishment ever inflicted in human history. So it should be no surprise that this “sign of contradiction” is seen by many as the largest “stumbling block” of the Christian faith.
Such reaction, while superficially understandable, ignores a foundational truth of human experience large and small as attested to by history: the greatest of life’s triumphs and successes have always come on the heels of the worst failures and horrors.
This truth finds it fulfillment in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord.
While believing firmly in the truth of this great paradox, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Cross symbolized something more than just a paradox, a deeply profound paradox though it may be.
In reading what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now pope emeritus Benedict XVI) had to say regarding the sign of the cross in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, I believe my hunch was vindicated. The sign of the Cross is the sign of God’s mark on creation prior to being a sign of crucifixion.
” Thus we can say that in the sign of the Cross, together with the invocation of the Trinity, the whole essence of Christianity is summed up; it displays what is distinctively Christian. Nevertheless, or rather for this very reason, it also opens the way into the wider history of religion and the divine message of creation. (pg. 178)
The future pope Benedict XVI then cites archeological evidence to suggest that the sign of the Cross, as the Judeo-Christian faith is concerned, has roots in the pre-Christian Jewish era:
“In 1873, on the Mount of Olives, Greek and Hebrew grave inscriptions bearing the sign of a cross were discovered from the time of Jesus. The excavators inevitably assumed that they were dealing with Christians of the earliest times. In about 1945 increasing numbers of Jewish graves with the sign of the cross were being discovered and assigned to more or less the first century after Christ. The discoveries no longer left room for the view that these were first- generation Christians. On the contrary, it had to be recognized that signs of the cross were established in the Jewish mileu.(pg 179 Emphasis in the original)
He then gives the scriptural backdrop for this acheological find:
“How are we to make sense of this? The key is to be found in Ezekiel 9:4f In the vision described there, God says to his linen-clad messenger, who carries the writing case at his side: ‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [Tav] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ In the terrible catastrophe now imminent, those who do not connive in the sin of the world suffer from it for the sake of God, suffering impotently yet at a distance from sin, are sealed with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Tav, which was written in the form of a cross (T or + or X). The Tav which as a matter of fact had the form of a cross, becomes the seal of God’s ownership. It corresponds to man’s longing for God, his suffering for the sake of God, so places him under God’s special protection. E. Dinkler was able to show that cultic stigmatization–on the hands or forhead–was occasionally practiced in the Old Testament and that this custom was also well known in the New Testament times. In the New Testament, Revelation 7:1-8 takes up the basic idea in Ezekiel’s vision. The discoveries of the graves, in conjunction with the texts of the time, prove that in certain circles within Judaism the Tav was a widespread sacred sign–sign of confession of faith in the God of Israel and at the same time a sign of hope in his protection. Dinkler summarizes his findings by say ing that, in the cross shaped Tav, ‘ a whole confession of faith is summed up in one sign.’ ‘The realities believed in and hoped for’, he says ‘are read into a visible image, but the image is more than just a mere reflection; it is in fact an image in whose saving power one places one’s hopes.’(pg. 179-180 Emphasis in original)
Perhaps even more striking is the theological significance of the sign of the cross is not limited to Judeo-Christianity. Again the future pope states:
“The Fathers belonging to the Greek cultural world were more directly affected by another discovery. In the wirings of Plato, they found the remarkable idea of a cross inscribed on the cosmos (cf. Timaeus 34ab and 36bc). Plato took this from the Pythagorean tradition, which in its turn had a connection with the traditions of the ancient East. First, there is an astronomical statement about the two great movements of the stars with which ancient astronomy was familiar: the ecpliptic (the great circle in the heavens along which the sun appears to run its course) and the orbit of the earth. These two intersect and form together the Greek letter Chi, which is written in the form of a cross (like an X). The sign of the cross is inscribed upon the whole cosmos. Plato, again following the more ancient traditions, connected this with the image of the deity: the Demiurge (the fashioner of the of the world) ‘stretched out’ the world soul ‘throughout the whole universe’. (St. Justin Martyr d. 165), the Palestinian-born first philosopher among the Fathers, came across this Platonic text and did not hesitate to link it with doctrine of the triune God and his action in salvation history in the person of Jesus Christ. He sees the idea of the Demiurge and the world as premonitions of the mystery of the Father and the Son–premonitions are in need of correction and yet also capable of correction. What Plato says about the world soul seems to him to refer to the coming of the Logos, the Son of God. And so he can now say that the shape of the cross is the greatest symbol of the lordship of the Logos, without which nothing in creation holds together (cf. I Apol. 55). The Cross of Golgotha is foreshadowed in the structure of the universe itself. The instrument of torment on which the Lord died is written into the structure of the universe. The cosmos speaks to us of the Cross, and the Cross solves for us the enigma of the cosmos. It is the real key to all reality. History and the cosmos belong together. When we open our eyes, we can read the message of Christ in the language of the universe, and conversely, Christ grants us understanding of the message of creation. (pg. 180-181 italics in original)
The Cross symbolizes more than anything that the value of suffering is not that suffering in and of itself has any value. It doesn’t. In fact, suffering is an evil. But due to sin it is an unavoidable reality. The value of suffering is actually the value of the good showing itself most magnificently in the face of suffering and great evil.
Evil is defined by some as an absence of good. In its most violent form, evil is a direct attack on the good, especially those goods which are most sacred. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Cross, the most sacred of all signs, that sign which is God’s mark on creation, would be the means through which evil attacks the sacred in its most gruesome form, that is the evil of Deicide. But as the good manifests itself most magnificently in the face of evil, the power of the Cross would show itself most clearly in this most grave of evil deeds. It is with this confidence that St. Paul can say, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)
With similar confidence, the future Pope Benedict XVI can say:
“In one respect, of course, the Cross does have a terrible aspect that we ought not to remove. It was, as a matter of fact, the cruelest form of execution known to antiquity. …To see that the purest of men, who was more than a man, was executed in such a grisly way can make us frightened of ourselves. … However, the Cross doesn’t stop at being a horror; it is not merely a horror, because the one who looks down at us from the Cross is not a failure, a desperate man, not one of the horrible victims of humanity. For this crucified man says something different from Spartacus and his failed adherents, because, after all, what looks down at us from the Cross is a goodness that enables a new beginning in the midst of life’s horror. The goodness of God himself looks on us, God who surrenders himself into our hands, delivers himself to us, and bears the whole horror of history with us. Looked at more deeply, this sign, which forces us to look at the dangerousness of man and all his heinous deeds, at the same time makes us look upon God , who is stronger, stronger in his weakness, and upon the fact that we are loved by God. It is in this sense a sign of forgiveness that also brings hope into the abysses of history.
It is indeed often asked today how we can still speak of God and do theology after Auschwitz. I would say that the Cross recapitulates in advance the horror of Auschwitz. God crucified and says to us that this God who incomprehensibly forgives us and who in his seeming absence. (Salt of the Earth pp. 26-27)
The Cross “recapitulates in advance” every suffering, large and small, that man grapples in the “valley of tears” that is much of his existence in this life. In this light, I find it somewhat disconcerting when some well-meaning people use the sufferings of Christ to minimize their own. While it is true that the tendency to over dramatize one’s woes is almost irresistible and should be avoided. But to size oneself up against God incarnate and lament one’s falling short, on close observation, smacks of pride. Of course, our ability to accept our sufferings will always fall short in comparison to that of Christ. Of course, he will be able to accept suffering much better than even the best of men. Being fully God and perfectly human, Jesus has integrity and complete faculties of self-control and self possession that we do not have. Instead of minimizing our own sufferings and struggles to that of Our Lord, we can look to his perfect sacrifice as a means of encouragement and inspiration to bear our own with greater courage and faith.
For God so loved mankind that he embraced the human condition completely, body and soul. This includes embracing all of man’s joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments. An understanding of the Cross that does not include all these elements is insufficient in my view. Intimately bound up with this is also man’s legitimate desire to not want to undergo suffering. After all, it was Jesus himself who said “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” (cf. Mark 14: 35-36, Matt. 26:38-42) Here, our Lord is teaching us that when we suffer for the sake of the Kingdom of God (and we will) it is in fact for the sake of the Kingdom of God and not for it’s own sake. This keeps us humble and protects us from trying to use suffering as food for the ego, as we have a tendency to do. I believe that it is twelve word phrase reveals the contrast of Jesus’ attitude toward martyrdom with that of Peter, who pride fully (albeit sincerely) proclaimed his willingness to die for Jesus only to deny Jesus out of cowardice even after Our Lord told him point blank that that was what he was going to do. (cf. Matt. 26:33-35)
Furthermore, it is the power of the Cross that give us the courage to ask why we must suffer precisely at the time when we are in its throes. “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabach-thani?” My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?” as well as “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” should be part of our prayers when faced with suffering.
So, when we take up our Cross (notice the Lord is saying we are to take up our own not His or anyone else’s) we can be confident that we are following the way of Jesus Christ, the Truth, and Way, and the Life of God and man, even in the face of great suffering and great evil.