Triumph of the Cross is all about love

  • September 1, 2010
Over the millennia of human existence, we’ve thought about the stars. We’ve drawn them, personified them, deified them, told stories about them, named them, speculated how to get to them. Our Milky Way galaxy is one of billions, our sun one of billions of stars in it and we’re one of eight surrounding planets (too bad, Pluto). Remember the speck of dust Horton the Elephant noticed and that it carried millions of tiny creatures? Are we at least as minuscule as that? Take a night-time trip out to the countryside and see for yourself.

And did the creator of the universe become one of us, a fellow speck of dust? And human as we are, did He allow Himself to be condemned, tortured and executed?

What’s extraordinary isn’t so much the stupendous nature of this claim, as the way we Christians seem to find it ordinary, even tedious. The early Church had many symbols, but the cross was only one, and the fish was more common. Now the cross is everywhere, but we’re often nonchalant about it.

I remember lining up on Good Fridays past to “venerate the cross” — when it was part of the service, not just an option. The ritual was memorable for its oddness, with a server holding the crucifix and wiping the bronze knees of Jesus between kisses.

But what in the world did it mean?

The veil parted for me when I attended a Good Friday service in another culture. Instead of polite queuing afterward to “peck and go,” we were confronted during the service by a huge, rough wooden cross, borne through the crowd on the shoulders of several men. People surged forward with little thought of politeness — rushing, touching, fondling, kissing, embracing. The cross! They were kissing not the crucifix, but the cross! The one Jesus cryptically told His disciples to “take up” long before they knew He was going to die on one.

The cross itself: a symbol of humans’ cruelty and inability to achieve justice. Sign of domination and humiliation, designed not just to kill but to physically, psychologically and publicly torture. In our world we prefer to cloak our state-authorized killings behind anti-septic medical science: lethal injection of a criminal, “termination of pregnancy” in state-run clinics, physician-authorized prescriptions for adults who wish to end their own lives. Evil and sin are now cleaner-looking, but no less real than among the Romans.

Then why kiss this cross? Why parade it through our churches and ask the faithful to embrace it? Is it masochism, expecting us to love evil and declare suffering, pain and abuse are good things?

The question isn’t whether we will, each of us, be on the cross — but rather, how we choose to be there. Not whether we’ll suffer, but how we’ll find meaning there. Not whether sin dwells among us humans, but whether evil or love triumphs.

Freedom of choice may be different than we think. It may be the way so starkly portrayed by Luke’s Gospel, with its image of three humans side-by-side on their separate crosses, naked, mutilated, each on his way to ignominious death. One is guilty and unrepentant; one guilty but repentant; the third, innocent and forgiving.

The cross isn’t about death, but life: exuberant, kissing, embracing, loving, life. The life freely given by the One who longs to be with us, wherever we are, small as we are, even on Golgotha.

On Sept. 14 we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross. This feast commemorates the finding of the true cross of Christ by Helen, mother of Roman emperor Constantine, in the fourth century. It wasn’t pain, but sweetness, that directed her search: the sweet smell of basil where the cross lay. In the Middle East, sweet basil is still used today to remind Christians we celebrate the victory of life over death — not the other way around.

This surprising sweetness was shown to me by Rhonda. Her pleasant, pretty face looked worn and worried, eyes listless. Work had been so difficult; she felt like everybody hated her. Monday had been particularly bad, the whole week a suffering. She wished she could quit. Her cross wasn’t spectacular, but to it she was nailed.

We talked of other things: drawing, music, her plan to enroll in a course. Her eyes sparkled, she smiled, life came back into her face. She thought about work again. “Maybe it’s not that they hate me — maybe they hate their jobs!” She laughed. “You know, tomorrow I’ll bring Elsie a rose and leave it on her desk. Just to see what happens.”

She couldn’t knock her cross down or tear herself off it, but she discovered its hidden potential. Though tested cruelly, she had the freedom to choose whether to be cruel (to others, to herself) or kind. Sometimes the cross is too heavy even for that; the only choice left is to keep praying, as Jesus did.

In our smallness, do we touch the vastness of the creator? Is that, too, the triumph of the cross?