To anyone who is inclined to dismiss religious faith as nothing more than an emotional prop for those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of life, the cross is a conundrum. Why would Christians wish to have as the main symbol of their religion a cruel instrument of execution associated with the death of their leader, and why would the writers of the gospels want to devote more than a third of their narrative to describing ‘the Passion’ – Jesus’ death and the events leading up to it? What could possibly be comforting in all of that?
The answer, of course, is that the Christian faith properly understood is not an emotional prop – not, at least, in the way that the critics imagine it to be; and if they are serious about wanting to understand it, then they need to grapple with the meaning of the cross: why it is so important to Christians, how it encapsulates their view of God and their relationship with him, and how it shapes their attitude to others and the way they seek to live their lives.
The Centrality of the Cross:
Jesus regarded the cross as an integral part of his mission. His death was not just a sudden, unfortunate, premature end to what might have been a promising career as a teacher and healer:
“The Son of Man must suffer …”, he said. (Mark 8:31 cf Mark 9:31;10:33).
The apostle St Paul, who wrote a large proportion of the letters in the New Testament, saw the cross as central to his message. As he commented to his readers in Corinth,
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Key elements within Christian worship all point to the cross in one way or another. Baptism was initially with John the Baptist a sign of repentance, but to followers of Jesus it became much more than that. When they went under the waters of baptism, they saw themselves as being united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, sharing in his crucified and risen life:
“Don’t you know,” wrote St Paul, “that all of you who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? You were … buried with him through baptism into death in order that … we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
The bread and wine at Holy Communion are clearly linked to Jesus’ Last Supper and his impending death. To quote St. Paul again:
“I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
The cross constantly features in Christian worship and it is important for at least four reasons:
First, it symbolises the sacrificial life of love to which Christians are called. Jesus once said that, if anyone wanted to follow him, they would need to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’ (Mark 8:34). He was the good shepherd who had lain down his life for the sheep (John 10:14-15), and he expected his disciples to follow his example:
“My command is this,” he said: “love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Covenant Love and Forgiveness:
Arguably the most central message of the cross concerns the establishment of a ‘new covenant’ of love and forgiveness between us and God. This is alluded to by Jesus at the Last Supper (eg Matthew 26:28).
But why was Jesus’ death necessary for this to happen? The early Christian writers used a wide range of images borrowed from the ancient world to explain how the cross opened the door to this liberating love and forgiveness – images relating to temple sacrifices, slaves being ransomed and set free, and legal debts being paid – and some of these images Jesus may have used himself. But they are alien to our modern culture and can be difficult to handle. How many people, for example, can really understand what is meant by saying that Jesus has ‘born our sins for us on the tree’, ‘paid the penalty for our sin’, or ‘died in our place’? Some see it as raising a question-mark over God’s justice, punishing an innocent man whilst allowing the guilty to go free. Others think that Jesus must have been dying to placate an angry God, though the New Testament of course never sets Jesus over against God in this way (eg Colossians 1:19-20). There are still others who wonder whether, if all their debts have already been paid by Jesus on the cross, they are free to sin with impunity. (St Paul amongst others strongly repudiates any such idea in Romans 6:1-2).
We need to grasp the fundamental message which lies behind these biblical images of sacrifice and redemption: they are all basically saying that, because Jesus is God’s ultimate expression of self-giving love, the cross has become both the ultimate rejection of that love by sinful humanity, and also, at the same time, the ultimate offer of divine love and forgiveness. God has declared to us through Jesus: ‘I will still love you, even when you try to destroy me and everything I stand for. I will continue to reach out to you; and, however painful or costly it may be, the door to forgiveness and reconciliation will always remain open. It is a covenant commitment.’ Humanity’s ultimate rejection of God is met with the ultimate offer of love and forgiveness.
No one is ever a ‘write off’ in the eyes of God. Even the worst of sinners can be helped to make a fresh start, so long as he or she is genuinely repentant, which is why, incidentally, so many Christians are open to the idea of remedial justice.
Solidarity in Suffering:
One of the distinctive beliefs of Christians is that God is present in the world through his Holy Spirit and that he has been most fully present in Jesus through what they call the ‘Incarnation’ (John 1:1-14). He is not like a boss who spends his whole time in Head Office and remains to the workers a dim and distant figure, but one who is constantly encountered on the shop floor, there amongst them, sharing in their trials and sufferings as well as their joys. God, through Jesus, is in complete solidarity with us (Heb.4:15-end). He is there with Jesus on the cross (even when he feels forsaken) reconciling to himself everything on earth and in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20).
The realisation that our Creator is also, in some very profound way, an incarnate, ‘crucified God’, casts the problem of evil in a new light. It shows how he accepts responsibility for his world and shares with us the consequences of its in-built freedom. He is present, not only in the anguish of Jesus on the cross, but in the pain and suffering of every single creature that has ever existed; and Christians can know that, however dark or desperate a situation might be, nothing can separate them from the love of God (Romans 8:31-end).
Prelude to Ultimate Victory:
Jesus’ death is not for Christians a heroic end, but the prelude to a new beginning, God’s final victory over evil and death. His love will have the final word. In Orthodox churches the Lord is often depicted on the cross, not as an agonised figure, but as Christus Victor, a triumphant king with a crown upon his head and arms outstretched to embrace the world. His victory is described in a dream-like vision in the Book of Revelation, where the river of life flows from the throne of God and the ‘Lamb’ (the innocent lamb representing Jesus, slain on the cross):
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)
Christians are called to ‘take up their cross’ and to live a sacrificial life of love, but they are called to do so in a spirit of hope in God’s unquenchable, victorious, life-giving love, to which that same cross of Christ also bears witness.