In my parish there is an enormous crucifix on display, of a size and stark stunning detail that could scandalize an entire Methodist Ladies’ Auxiliary picnic. But there is indeed something deeply scandalous about crucifixes, a perturbing kind of ethic about them that, being a few thousand years removed from 1st century Judaea, we are apt to forget. We should not. The crucifix is a good lesson in God’s deft hand, His long-form chessboard logic.
It is easy to forget, or else simply not know, just how terrifying the cross was to the contemporaries of Christ: it was a brutal, horrific, ignominious, shameful method of torture and execution, far less humane and far more savage than any of the still-savage methods we now use to take each other’s lives in cold blood. Today a cross is something you hang on your wall or around your neck or on your front door; it is a symbol used to denote religious nutjobs in network primetime drama shows and weak-willed spiritual hippies in Nicholas Sparks novels. On the rare occasions that a full-blown crucifix enters pop culture, it is to demarcate a particular religion—orthodox Catholicism, say—as particularly ancient, i.e. as existing prior to 1970, something baffling and pitiful but not scary. Few among us associate the simple symbol with one of the most fearsome and barbarous methods of state death in the ancient world.
But that’s what it was, so much so that, when it became clear where the whole public ministry thing was going, Jesus’s disciples—the men who believed him to be “Christ, the Son of the Living God,” mind you—excused themselves and got the hell out of Dodge. Nobody misunderstood what the cross represented in 33 A.D.; to hold it up as a symbol of God’s triumph over sin, as a representation of the Risen Lord, the Savior, was unthinkable, laughable, the modern-day equivalent of holding up an electric chair or a gas chamber and expecting to be taken seriously.
Yet Christians were taken seriously, up to the point that they converted an entire empire and from there the world. And, as with the historicity of Pontius Pilate, we must ask ourselves what exactly happened here, and what our answer says about the truth of certain things: namely, how did a bedraggled group of Middle Eastern peasants take a brutal instrument of tortuous death and turn it into the astonishing and life-changing symbol now ubiquitous throughout the planet?
The orthodox Christian response is well-known, though to be fair the countless Protestant denominations (and more than a few latter-day Catholic parishes) find the whole idea of a crucifix to be distasteful and unpleasant and ultimately unnecessary, maybe a bit like a periodic colonoscopy: necessary, to be sure, but best left behind closed doors and out of sight of polite company. There is a particular Christian ethos that sees the empty cross as more relevant to our religious instruction than the one with the crucified Lord on it. But they’re only half-right. Christ’s resurrection is indeed the turnkey for the entire Christian faith, but Christ’s example on the cross is the blueprint for the entire Christian way of life: total subservience to God, a life emptied of oneself, a willingness to say—even as you sweat blood and your halfwit disciples keep falling asleep on you—“Not as I will, but as thou wilt,” even unto brutal death. This is how we are supposed to live.
It is a point of great cosmic irony that the very thing used to execute Christ, the vicious tool used to slowly and painfully suffocate him to death, would become, in time, the most enduring representation of His victory. It is true that the cross did not become ubiquitously common as a symbol of Christianity and Christ until a few hundred years after his death—but the seed was plainly planted on Good Friday, as evidenced by Paul, who preached “nothing…except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” and Peter, who, on the cusp of martyrdom, arranged for an inverted crucifixion, believing himself “unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord,” as Jerome put it.
Something happened to teach these men, and hundreds and thousands and eventually billions of other men and women, that something special had happened on the cross at Calvary. What was it?