Lately I’ve been pondering thoughts of value, and how we attribute significance to things in our world. Throughout history people have been attributing meaning to various forms of art, philosophy, words, and symbols. I bet if you think for a second, you can think of a symbol to which you have attributed great significance in your own life.
Many Christians think of the cross as their symbol of great significance. This is the symbol called to mind in my own life right now. You see, where Christians attribute notable significance, others see it as merely a form of decoration or a fashion statement. Have you noticed how much the cross is appearing in clothing designs right now? I don’t believe its because our culture is becoming overtly “Christian”. Quite the contrary, actually. I believe they are attributing less significance to it, and I ask “is that necessarily wrong?”
Maybe this is just me, but I don’t feel like the cross is really the best symbol to depict Christ. (some gasp in sheer appalling rage and offense, I’m sure.) But in the wake of so many cultural moments where Christians have chosen to stand on morals or events that are so terribly insignificant, and rather appalling in their own right, (Fred Phelps dying, The movie “Noah”, the other movie “Son Of God”, or the OTHER movie “God’s Not Dead”, which you shouldn’t even get me started on.) I’ve been thinking about the other things American Christians have been misunderstanding for a long time now.
Is it possible for a symbol that is meant (at least in our time) to symbolize what Christ did for us all to become an idol in and of itself? I am of the opinion that ANYTHING can become an idol, no matter how holy we think it already is. I don’t believe there is much in this world that can be made worthless, or of too much worth, religious artifacts included. Maybe we focus too much on the cross. Maybe we’ve lost sight of what it means.
The cross actually predates Christianity, back to very early, primitive human civilizations. The Cross is said to have been used for a number of things. The cross had ornamental value to be sure, but also religious significance as well. Historical records indicate the cross was used as a symbol of the sun god in Egyptian culture, and that Egyptian priests and Pontiff kings would hold it in their hands to represent their authority and power given to them by the sun god. This cross was known as the “Crux Ansata”.
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross seldom appeared in any christian iconography. The cross would have been considered too gruesome and grotesque to use as their main symbol of Christ, because it still signified the very cruel public execution of crucifixion, which would have still been very prevalent in culture, and felt deeply in everyone’s hearts and minds. The cross was actually considered one of the most terrible symbols during this time. No one wanted to see it.
So when, and why, did this become the most universal sign of Christianity? It was first noted as being used (in a positive context) towards the end of the 2nd Century, but not what you might think. Tertullian mentions the cross in his writings, but as a practice where people when praying for or blessing one another would trace the cross on each other’s foreheads (similar to Ash Wednesday practices, as well as Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican practices). This practice was meant to symbolize the debt Christ had paid for us on the cross, and that we are all marked by his love for us. I still wholly believe in this symbolic act, just so we’re clear.
Certain religions that have stemmed from the Christian faith, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe holding the cross to such high significance is a form of idolatry (turns out I’m not alone.), while Mormons believe the cross represents Christ dying, while they want their message to be about the living Christ and choose to focus on their people as the greater symbol of their faith (and the “temple of the Lord”). Though I wouldn’t say I agree with either of these two groups’ theology, I think I can understand where they are coming from, at least on this topic.
Luther strongly pushed the use of the cross as the main symbol of the Christian faith as a means of emphasizing his theology of the Gospel, which was that we can only fully understand and embrace Christ through His suffering and death on the cross. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican crosses are most often crucifixes, to emphasize that it is Jesus who is important, not so much the cross itself.
I’ve actually fallen in love with other symbols for Christ in the contexts of Christ crucified and resurrected. My favorite one that I’ve found is the “Chi Rho”. If I was ever going to get a tattoo, it would be of this. Some in high church congregations, some Lutheran, and some Methodist, might recognize this symbol.
This symbol was made known by the Roman Emperor Constantine when he made Christianity the religion of Rome. In a Memoir written about the life of Constantine by Bishop Eusebias, he says that in Gaul, just before the Battle of The Milvian Bridge, when Constantine had been pondering the many misfortunes that befall commanders who invoke help from multiple gods, he had then decided to seek divine aid from the “One God”. At noon on this day, He saw a vision of a cross of light over the sun with the greek words attached to it that translates to “In This Sign You Will Conquer”. What is remarkable about this story is that Constantine wasn’t the only one to see this vision, but his entire army saw it as well. That night, Constantine claims Jesus visited him in a dream and told him to construct a symbol similar to the one he saw in the sky and put it on the shields of all his soldiers. Constantine’s army attained the unlikely victory of the great Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This event forever changed Constantine’s life, and the path of the Roman Empire.
I began learning many years ago about all the other symbols used to depict Christ to His believers throughout history and loved the stories behind them. I’ve found myself searching and asking more and more questions as time goes on. A dialogue I’ve had with myself and others for a long time now. The internal conversation still continues, it seems.
While I am not condemning the use of the cross, or any other symbol for that matter, I am attempting to bring to light the reality that we, as a culture, tend to put emphasis on things, sometimes the wrong things. We would do well to constantly analyze our beliefs, and the things we hold at a level of great importance in our lives. Maybe the “cross” issue was brought to my own mind because there are two churches in my city (and one in a nearby city as well) that have erected GIGANTIC crosses, one of them being the church I work and serve in, and this has brought to mind often if that was the best use of time and resources. Over the last year I’ve heard statements about said crosses that really rubbed me the wrong way. I get leery of any statement made about something that sounds as though it could be worshipped. Though I completely believe the majority of the people in my church have good hearts and meant well and are seeking to find Christ, and I don’t believe this was the intent of anyone I’ve talked to, I also think it’s kind of hard NOT to sound like you worship something that costs thousands and thousands of dollars and is 25 stories tall. But I digress.
My point is that we need to always be aware and sensitive to the things we stand up for, and make sure that we are standing up for the right things.
Do I think it’s right to stand up for a movie? No. Do I think it’s right to stand up for a Christian agenda in politics? No. Do I think I should be finding every opportunity to shove my narrow-minded beliefs down people’s throats in some effort of pure ignorance to “save” the world? (*cough* Fred Phelps *cough*). Hell no! But do I think we should be standing up for people without a home, or food, or clothes, or the means to have a job? Do I think we should be fighting for the people who can’t fight for themselves? Or speaking for those who have no voice? Do I think we should be showing love to the people the world has only shown hate? Do I think we should be a community, or dare I say a family, who welcomes anyone who wants to be adopted with open arms, and cares about each other on the most intimate of levels? To that I say a loud and resounding yes! If the cross helps remind you to be THAT to the world, then by all means wear it on your clothes, place statues of it throughout your home, build one 10 times larger than your house, tattoo it on your face if you have to! Do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. But we have to redefine the way we live out our faith first.
Maybe then the world could hear the words of truth we have for them. Maybe they would be receptive. Maybe then we could have a real conversation. We have to start living a life that is consistent with Scripture. Maybe then the world will have a more accurate depiction of Christ, instead of the terribly perverted view we’ve been force-feeding them. But that’s for another blog post.