Krusifiksi Helsingin piispan haudallaIt is the essential, universal symbol of Christianity. Displayed on Bible covers and church walls, worn on neck chains, sung about in hymns through the ages, it is the very fulcrum of the Christian faith.

I’m talking, of course, about the cross.

Yet, whether through wilful neglect or simple familiarity, we have so often domesticated this central icon of our faith.

Most Christians agree that Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar, and most churches mark the death and resurrection of Jesus in some way. But I have sat through services even on Good Friday itself where the cross has served as little more than a quick aside – a necessary but distracting stepping stone – on the way to the triumph of resurrection.

Don’t get me wrong: the Easter story does not end – thank God! – at the cross. Without the resurrection, we are of all men most to be pitied. I am not suggesting, then, that we should focus our attention solely on the cross, to the exclusion of all else. But I am saying that many of us have allowed the cross to become an accessory when it should be at the very foundation and core of both our doctrine and our practice.

Here are just three ways in which we domesticate the cross:

We domesticate the cross when we demote it to the symbol of a divine legal transaction. In our quest to understand and be sure of the foundation for our redemption, we reduce the cross to nothing more than a gear in the mechanic of salvation, when our right response should be to gape in awe at the terrible mystery of it.

We domesticate the cross when we make it nothing more than a sign of our own specialness. Jesus loved me enough to die for me! This is a true statement, yet on its own it falls woefully short of the full picture of Christ’s work at Calvary. Yes, the cross declares the height and the depth of God’s love for His creation in unmistakeable fashion; but it also holds up with awful clarity the depths of our own wickedness and the inevitable end of all our selfishness, violence and self-promotion. The cross should provoke in us naked humility, not pride at our own lovableness.

We domesticate the cross when we construe it as a means for our own success. We do this whenever we thank Jesus for dying on the cross while stubbornly refusing to take it up for ourselves. Christ’s call to to take up our cross – to daily crucify our flesh by putting love of God and neighbour above our own ego-driven wants and needs – is not an optional extra reserved for uber-passionate Christians only. The incredible grace of God notwithstanding, Jesus did not go to the cross so we could live our dream, fulfil our destiny or enjoy a life free from suffering or self-denial; he went there to lead the way for the rest of us.

Being keenly interested in matters theological, I’m not for one moment suggesting we shouldn’t exercise our minds and hearts by considering just how it is that Jesus’ death achieved our redemption. But, as we do so, let us remember that what we are attempting to peer into is, at the end of all our wonderings, a sacred mystery, not a solvable equation.

Let us approach the cross, then, with inquiry; let us approach it with thanksgiving; but most of all let us approach it aghast at the scandal of the crucified God and humbled in awe at the sight of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

[ Image: Marko Vallius ]