“Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again.” [Mark 10:33-34 (NLT)]
When making our drive south to Florida, we passed what is claimed to be America’s largest cross in Effingham, Illinois. According to its builders, this 198-feet tall and 113-feet wide 180-ton cross is a beacon of hope to the over 50,000 travelers who pass by it each day. Seeing it, caused me to wonder why it is that we Christians have chosen to associate ourselves with an ancient object of torture and death. You’d never expect to see an electric chair or a gallows erected as a monument or miniaturized on a necklace and yet we proudly display crosses on buildings, in churches, on jewelry, and along our roads.
Crucifixion was an extremely cruel form of execution that forced the condemned to suffer a prolonged agonizing death. It was such a horrible way to die that the Romans rarely used it on their own citizens; the disgrace and shame of crucifixion was primarily used for slaves and the worst kind of criminals. Yet God allowed His only Son to endure the unbearable pain and horror of dying on the cross. The torture began when Jesus was beaten with a flagrum (a short whip with pieces of bone and metal woven into its thongs). Quite likely, as a result of the scourging, the skin on His back was ripped to the bone, some ribs had broken, and a lung had collapsed. He was taunted by soldiers, a crown of thorns was driven into his head, and He was beaten again. Then, gasping for breath, Jesus was dragged to his feet and made to carry the cross to the Golgotha. So battered and wounded that He was unable to carry it, Simon of Cyrene was called into duty. After being stripped of his clothes, the naked Jesus was nailed to the cross and the cross raised. It wasn’t long before our Lord would no longer have been able to support himself with his legs. As his body’s weight was transferred to his arms, his shoulders would have been pulled from their sockets and breathing would have become extremely difficult. The cause of His death was probably due to asphyxiation, heart failure, a blood clot in the lungs, and/or organ failure due to hypovolemic shock (severe blood and fluid loss that prevents the heart from pumping enough blood to the body). Jesus suffered an especially horrific death on the cross and I question why we identify ourselves with something as grotesque as this instrument of torture.
I suppose the facetious answer to “Why the cross?” is that it’s too difficult to depict the empty tomb which would represent the risen Christ! There are, however, all sorts of scholarly articles that explain the evolution of the cross as a Christian symbol. Put simply, before the 4th Century and the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Christians were reticent about using the cross as a symbol. Since its close association with Christ exposed them to contempt, danger and persecution, they used a variety of more subtle symbols such as a dove, fish, ship, lyre, and anchor to identify themselves. After the pagan Constantine converted to Christianity, the Emperor legalized Christianity, abolished crucifixion and promoted the symbol of the cross throughout the Roman Empire. Granted, the cross symbol has pagan origins, but so do the Christmas tree and most of Easter’s symbols. The importance of the cross to Christians isn’t negated simply because cross-like designs were present in pagan practices. The cross has never been (and never should be) a good luck charm or an object of worship. Nevertheless, the cross of Jesus Christ is essential to our faith. Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew exactly what He was doing and the pain He would endure—yet He willingly suffered for all for us. It is His death on the cross that frees us from the penalty of sin. The cross represents the pardon for which a condemned criminal awaits, the forgiveness that none of us deserve, and the sacrifice of a perfect man for an imperfect people.
I usually wear a small cross; when I place it around my neck, it reminds me to whom it is I belong. After writing this, I will also remember the enormous price He paid for my salvation. Thank you, Jesus!