The cross is the central symbol of our faith, and yet I wonder if we appreciate the full meaning of its power. Did you know that it took three hundred years for the cross to become the recognized symbol of Christianity? That’s right. Early Christians during the first several centuries of the faith were forbidden to depict the cross or the crucifixion in any form. The cross was a means of horrible torture and death still very much in use as a means of state execution. Jesus had been nailed to a cross and the first Christians saw it as the ancient equivalent of the electric chair or the gallows. As C.S. Lewis once said, “the crucifixion did not become common in art until all who had seen a real one died off.”
Ironically, it was a non-believer who changed all that. At least he was a non-believer to begin with. In the year 312, on the eve of an important battle, the Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross. Looking for something to improve his luck and motivate his troops, he placed a representation of a cross on a banner, painted it on the shields of his soldiers and carried it into battle. He was victorious. As a result, he and the entire Roman Empire became Christian. It is interesting to realize that the advent of the cross as the symbol of the faith coincides with the rise of Christianity as the religion of an empire. Historians note that at the time of his conversion, Constantine had little interest in the person of Jesus himself and he found the crucifixion as something of an embarrassment. Rather, for him the cross was not so much a symbol of suffering as a magic totem that empowered his forces.
In a similar way, when I was a child I often went to bed each night clutching a cross. As a kid troubled by bad dreams and too vivid an imagination, the little cross I wore around my neck gave me a deep sense of calm and comfort. Many a night I can remember huddling in the dark with the covers pulled up around my head and my cross gripped between my fingers. As a teenager, much like Constantine, I saw the cross as a magic charm to assist me in battle. Except my battles all took place on the football field. I was sure that when I wore my cross during a game I played better. I remember thinking that if I taped the cross that hung around my neck to my chest before I put on my shoulder pads then it would not slide around and jab me while I was playing. As an adult, I treasure the cross that I wear Sunday after Sunday. Melissa and I each received one when we were ordained and we wear them with pride. They are representations of our office, of our service, and of our lives as priests.
For many of us the cross is a symbol of comfort, pride or an item of beauty. Jeweled crosses, beaded crosses, crosses on earrings, bracelets and tattoos, are popular among the faithful and the non-religious alike. Even for those who have no interest in the faith they have become part of an edgy urban fashion statement. And sometimes I wonder, was the early church right? Could we actually wear our crosses so easily, so nonchalantly, if we fully understood what Jesus went through on his cross? Do we afford the cross the importance it deserves or do we simply use it for our own purposes much like Constantine?
On Palm Sunday the church reads the passion of our Lord as it has done for centuries in order to remind the faithful of the difficult and desperate origins of the cross and the man who hung upon it. Every year on this date we are drawn back in time to witness and take part in the suffering and death of Jesus. We are brought back to stand with Jesus as he is betrayed in the garden, to witness the cruelty of the soldiers, to walk beside Jesus on his way to Golgotha and to witness his death nailed to a tree. We do this because the two thousand years that separate us from this event in history act as a buffer, insulating us from its painful reality. In the same way we have cleaned up and beautified the cross, so too have we neatened up the crucifixion. Palm Sunday is here to remind us of the awful truth of what Christ has done for us. Palm Sunday is here with all of its drama to help us see how we are part of the same fickle crowd who hailed Jesus as our King one minute and had him put to death the next.
I am reminded of the story of a five-year-old boy who because of a sore throat had to stay home with a sitter on Palm Sunday. After the service, when the family returned they were all carrying palm branches. When the boy asked what they were for his older brother explained that people held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by. Putting his hands on his hips and bursting into tears, the little boy exclaimed, “Wouldn’t you know it. The one Sunday I don’t go, He shows up.”
The same Jesus crucified so many years ago on Golgotha is alive and well. He didn’t just show up two thousand years ago – he shows us today, he is here with us, in this place, at this very moment. The passion story we read from Mark’s Gospel is not just an event from our history that we seek to memorialize. It isn’t something that took place thousands of years ago, rather it is an ever present reality that points us to the true nature of God. We may have beautified our crosses of shining brass and stained glass, but the living Christ is just as willing to suffer and die on a cross for your sins and mine this Holy Week as he was all those years ago.
Herein resides the essence of the Christian faith. On Golgotha, God picked up the shattered pieces of a human life and made something holy out of them. He took an instrument of death and turned it inside out so that now the cross is the most powerful symbol of life. It is now a symbol of eternal life born out of Christ’s willingness to sacrifice himself, even to the point of death. The good news for you and me is that our Lord is still doing the same thing for all of us. Because of Jesus on the cross, our shattered lives can also be made into something holy. Because of Jesus on the cross, the greatest suffering we will ever know in life he has already known. Because of Jesus on the cross, our sins can be forgiven and our lives redeemed. Christ the crucified is here to take the full weight of the world upon his shoulders, to hang there, bleed and gasp his last. All for us, all for our salvation. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Amen.