Clergy from the religious communities in our area were invited to join a congregation in welcoming their new minister. As I waited, dressed in the white alb, red stole – as designated to celebrate the occasion, and a cross, a woman gave me a long stare and then, grabbing hold of my cross, said, “How can you wear this despicable sign?”
“Despicable!” Yes, the cross is a sign of a form of death that was despicable. In Jesus’ time the Roman court intended the sight of a person sentenced to death by crucifixion to elicit that response, and so they made it the most humiliating and excruciatingly painful form of execution.
The person was stripped of all clothing, which identified a individual's station and work - the longer the sleeves and the number of tassels, the more important the person. and the slave's tunic was a sign of service. To be stipped was to be dehumanized, losing all signs of one's identity. For Jews is was shameful to appear in public with legs exposed; to be seen naked was unthinkable.
The condemned were on display until death came by asphyxiation as the arms bore the full weight of the body and the sun caused dehydration and gasping and heaving for air, when finally the last breath came hours or days later.
All the time the public gazed and jeered, fulfilling the Roman court’s reason for crucifying murderers, or runaway slaves, or enemies, or anyone plotting against the Roman emperor who claimed to be god on earth.
Jesus’ crime was posted on the wooden plaque above His head: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” – Jesus, the insurrectionist, determined to bring down the Roman emperor and dethrone King Herod – now raised to die on a cross!
No one would claim to follow the One condemned to that death! And to do so would be one’s own invitation to persecution, enslavement, and death – on one’s own cross!
Crucifixion was meant to terrorize the public, forcing them into submission, and so, the early Christians devised another sign to identify themselves and their places of worship.
They chose to use the Greek word for fish: “Ichthus” - I, CH, TH, U, S – to spell out: I – for Jesus (then the J was an I); CH – for Christ; TH – Theos - for God; UIOS – U -for Son; S – for Savior. “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”
At the same time they never dismissed the Gospel words of Jesus on the way to His crucifixion: ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say— “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, referring to His cross but not pictured with the cross. Because, in the first century, as the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth, the crucified Christ was “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1: 23)
That all changed for Christians in 312 AD when the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He looked up at the sun and saw the cross with rays of light above it and the words in Greek that read “In this sign conquer.” He ordered his troops to mark their shields with the letters X and R (Greek letters for the CH and R in Christ’s name), and they won the battle.
A year later Constantine issued the Edict of Milan that ordered the end of crucifixions and slavery and religious intolerance.
The Christian church could flourish with the cross its prized sign for Jews as described in today’s Letter to the Hebrews: God becoming the ultimate sacrifice in Christ, the “lamb that takes away the sins of the world,” and for Gentiles, the unfathomable truth of the wisdom of God to take on death itself on Good Friday’s cross to conquer it through Easter Sunday’s empty tomb.
The cross once despised, now prized as the sign of the unfathomable love of God Who would use crucifixion to announce to the world: “This is how much I love you!”
The cross once despised, now prized as more than an artist’s and sculptor’s inspiration for ornamentation or the gemologist’s and jeweler’s incentive for crafting rings and cufflinks and pendants; the cross now prized as its shape becomes the mark of God’s promise read in Jeremiah’s writings: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. …from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
The mark of the cross meant to be the sign of God’s unbreakable promise to be our God; to write the law of love on our hearts, to forgive us and remember our sins no more. The mark of the cross that carries the echo of Christ’s words: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
The mark of the cross reclaimed by ALL Christians from being a ritualistic act, or when seeing someone “crossing one’s self,” say, “They must be Roman Catholic or Orthodox, or high Episcopalian or Lutheran.” - often said in a tone of the woman who grabbed my cross and said, “How can you wear this despicable thing?”
“Despicable,” the word rightly used now only when a cross marked place or the cross imprinted T-shirt or tattooed person desecrates and denigrates the sign, mocking Christ and denouncing, even persecuting His followers...until those who do hear the wondrous story. As happened to one man who broke down before the cross of Christ and confessed, "The mark I once made in derision on the wall of a church, I now make on my heart. The Christ I once cursed is the Christ I now confess as my Lord and Savior." From “despised” to “prized!”
The sign of the cross made at the time of Baptism and Confirmation and death to mark us as belonging to God and to one another. The sign that holds us to that truth.
In a family where the mother left early for the work, the dad stayed to see their children off to school with the daily routine - checking to see they had their lunches and books and homework before they headed out to get on the school bus, and, at the door, the dad would make the sign of the cross on each forehead as he did say, "Remember Whose you are and to Whom you belong." A blessing lifted from the very first words in the teaching tool of the Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism, "That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death –not to myself but to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid
for all my sins."
This past week pastors in our Conference attended a seminar in which the leader talked about appropriate ways to relate to individuals in the congregation or in counseling sessions; what words to use, what gestures to avoid, and then the leader added, “Do not touch the face, because it is an intimate gesture.”
I interrupted with, “But when we Christians make the sign of the cross on another person’s forehead, it is not a human gesture. It is not one person touching another person; it is the touch of God in Christ, marking us with the sign of the love with which God loves.”
And we also mark ourselves so that we forever remember we are not our own but belong to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The cross – once despised, now prized! Thanks be to God for this unspeakable Gift! AMEN.