Friday, March 9, 2012
The Cross: Symbol of Our Sure and Certain Hope
John 3. 13-17
The Cross: Our Sure and Certain Hope…
A homily for the end of a Lenten Quiet Day, at the Church of the Ascension, Portsmouth.
The Cross is a powerful symbol indeed. It stands, for many, at the centre of their faith, and even at the centre of time itself. A traditional belief, especially in the Orthodox church, is that after his Crucifixion, Jesus descended into the world of the dead, and released those who had died before him, but who were held captive because of their sin. The Cross then, stands at the Crossroads of time. Jesus’ atoning death is believed to have effect both forward and backwards in time.
It should not surprise us then, perhaps, to discover the cross, or cross-like symbols, popping up throughout history. Many crosses have been found throughout pre-history…way before it became important as a Christian symbol. In most cases, the cross was a symbol of life. It may be that the cross symbolised the making of fire by rubbing two sticks together…fire being a symbol of warmth, the Sun, and life. In other mythologies, crosses symbolised a connection between heaven (as a vertical line) and earth (as the horizontal line). Worship, therefore, took place at the point of connection between heaven and earth…at the centre of the Cross. There are two pre-Christian crosses that you will probably be most familiar with. The first is the Swastika – which has a wide variety of meanings to many many different people of the world (see here for more details ) . The second is the Ankh – an Egyptian version of the cross, with a looped head at the top…believed to be principally a symbol of life. (See here for more details )
Initially, after Jesus’ death, the cross didn’t feature in Christian worship at all. For many, it was a disgusting and degrading symbol, not worthy to be used in connection with the Christ. For us, a modern parallel might be the use of a hang-man’s noose as a religious symbol. Early Christians, as you probably know, preferred the use of the secret sign of the fish (here for more details ) - the Icthus, the letters of which could form an acrostic phrase: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
However, as crucifixion faded from habitual use by the Romans, we begin to see the sign of the cross emerging in Christian worship…until, by our time, it has become a ubiquitous sign of the Christian religion…like it, or not!
The cross, then, comes to us with redolent history. It is an ancient sign of life and healing - a divine union between heaven and earth. Tradition has it that the ‘pole’ which Moses lifted up in the desert, for sick people to gaze upon and find healing, was in fact a cross…though in this case it was a ‘T’ shaped cross. The same symbol – a T-shaped cross with a bronze serpent – is now a universal sign of the healing arts.
The sign of the cross speaks to us of life…and of a mystical union between heaven and earth. But to Christians it speaks still deeper. For it was on a cross that God showed how much he loved the world. In the words of our Gospel reading, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life' (John 3.16). The whole narrative push of the Gospels was that is was necessary for Jesus to die on such a cross.
But why? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a Cross? It's frankly what the church calls (for good reason!) a ‘Mystery’. My advice is that you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you that they have understood exactly what Jesus was accomplishing on the cross. The writers of the Bible itself wrestle with meaning – at various points they conjure with metaphors like ‘paying a ransom to the devil’ or ‘taking our sins upon him’ or ‘being punished for our sake’. Later theologians have sometimes preferred to speak of the Cross as a grand moral example…a graphic, lived-out picture of how far it is necessary to commit oneself to the Gospel. Others have pointed out how the Cross stands as a vindication of peaceful resistance over inhuman violence…because the subsequent Resurrection demonstrates that peace will eventually overcome all war. Rowan Williams suggests through the Cross, the human power-mongers who promise that violence can rule the world are shown to be false prophets. How can violence rule the world if it ends up pushing God to the margins of society?
So, as you can see, there are many different ways of understanding, or meditating upon the meaning of the Cross. But through them all, one underlying reality holds sway. It was to the Cross that Jesus turned his face. He was reluctant…praying that this particular cup of suffering may pass him by…but it was clearly vital to Him, and to the completion of his mission.
For that reason, if no other, we look to the Cross. The Cross was important to Jesus…it symbolised the very apex of his mission. And so to us, the Cross symbolises the very heart of our Religion. It symbolises the sure and certain hope that we have that, as our Gospel reading made clear, ‘whosoever believes in Him, will have eternal life’.
It is perhaps worth pointing out, however, that Jesus did not dictate, in that passage, precisely what we were to believe about him. We are not asked to sign up to any particular theological understanding of his atoning death, for example. We are invited not to believe things about Jesus…but to believe in Jesus. We are invited into something similar to a relationship with a person, not mental assent to a series of theoretical propositions.
Those who ‘believe in Him’ are those who have studied his life, as well as we can understand it from our distance in time. Those who believe in Him are those who trust that His way of living, his way of giving, sacrificially, of all that he had and was…this is the way to eternal life. The Cross symbolises the giving up of the last thing a man can give…his very life. For us, especially in this time of Lent, may it symbolise the giving of our lives too…offered as living sacrifices for the God who is our sure and certain hope.