AT ONE TIME I wore a Benedictine Crucifix as part of my clerics. It is a truly beautiful Crucifix with a Benedictine medallion in the center. It is the cross worn by men and women who are a part of a Benedictine monastery or convent. My crucifix had the figure of Jesus in a burnished bronze while the cross itself was black with a pewter trim; the medallion was also made of pewter. Because the cord that held the Crucifix was fraying, I stopped wearing it.
Once I was asked, because of the Crucifix, if I believed in Christ resurrected. My response was, “Of course; that’s the Christian message of hope.” The questioner asked, “Then why do you wear a cross with a dead Jesus on it?” My response was, “Just as the apostle Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:23), ‘we proclaim Christ crucified’” Thus the Crucifix is a statement of faith.
A cross is a strange object. Think about it with me for a while. An evangelist I once observed and heard suggested that had the form of execution been a gallows rope, we would likely be wearing a replica of the gallows instead of a cross. That’s an interesting thought, but the cross is a very simple design that can catch our attention immediately. Not only do we wear the cross as a pendant from around our necks, but it has also become a form of jewelry found on the end of silver or gold chains and dangling from pierced ears.
Further, the cross has also become the subject of musical compositions, such as oratorios, symphonies, and spiritual songs and hymns. The most widely known of such hymns, in this country probably, is the Old Rugged Cross. Other hymns that I prefer are, In the Cross of Christ I Glory; Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow; Lift High the Cross; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; and Beneath the Cross of Jesus. An old gospel song I enjoy and find the message pertinent is, At the Cross Where I First Saw the Light. There are other hymns in the 1982 Hymnal that refer to the Cross, but I am not familiar with them enough to comment on them.
My favorite is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Many, of course, are moved by the tune and words of The Old Rugged Cross, but I can’t understand it. An old rugged cross stands on a faraway hill does not seem accurate to reality to me. The cross is no longer on that distant hill; it now stands above altars and church buildings. It is a symbol of faith. Indeed, we can understand the words as metaphoric. We know that there is no longer a rugged cross on a hill in or near Jerusalem, but we can see it in our mind’s eye. This old hymn is so widely known and loved that it stirs in people deep-seated memories of church and fellowship.
Several years ago at a nursing home, we were leading a worship service that ended with us singing the Old Rugged Cross. All throughout the service one of the residents, an obviously mentally disturbed woman, was pacing back and forth and was little by little making her way to the front of the room. She did not sing or stop walking at any time until we came to an end. As the song was beginning she stopped and looked to the front and began to sing. Something in this old hymn resurrected in her a memory of a good time long past. It is a powerful song that moves all sorts of people.
The hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, tells a similar story, but I think it tells it with more poetry. We sing these words, “When I survey the wondrous cross where the young prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
Beneath the Cross of Jesus is as powerful as any, we sing. The words are about finding hope in a weary land. Here’s what I mean, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land, a home within the wilderness, rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat and the burden of the day.”
The cross is a symbol, for me at least, of a victory over evil. In Christ, the symbol of arbitrary state tyranny has been turned into a symbol of hope. The cross represents for us unconditional love. The unconditional love was and remains the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross.
The cross, therefore, is the central symbol of the Christian faith. The cross represents the total commitment to love and to personal sacrifice. This holy icon gives meaning to the Christian message of hope. As I have indicated, this terrible mechanism of execution has been transformed by God, through Christ Jesus, into a symbol of the defeat of evil and the promise of eternal life.
Episcopalians especially are devoted to the symbology of the cross. As the cross is processed down and up the center aisle of the church at the beginning and ending of worship, many people bow, and some even genuflect (drop down on knee). When Episcopalians enter the church and find their pew, many will genuflect or bow to the cross that stands above the Altar before entering the pew and when settled will kneel and quietly pray.
The question asked about believing in the Risen Christ is answered by the cross. It doesn’t matter whether it is a Crucifix or an empty cross. What is important is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. In other words, Christ Jesus has risen not only from the tomb but also from the cross. He is the victor, and because Jesus has won the struggle against sin and death, those who believe in him will also win the battle.
The resurrection is, however, pointless unless Jesus actually died on the cross. If we believe that Jesus was a man who could experience the joys, sadness, and pain of human life, we must believe that when he was taken down from the cross on that terrible day, he was, in fact, dead. We don’t pray to a dead Jesus on the cross, but the Crucifix reminds us of Jesus’ passion and that on a Friday, so long ago, this man died but miraculously overcame the power of death and returned to give us a promise of life.
The Lenten season gives homage to the cross and the Easter season gives homage to life. Regarding faith, we cannot have Easter, however, until we have the cross. As St. Francis is believed to have prayed, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Jesus made this mystery a reality.
Maybe I should repair the worn cord that holds my Benedictine Crucifix and wears it again. It is a powerful statement of faith, hope, and love.