“The Tragic and Triumphant Cross Leading to Hope for Us All”
After all the centuries in which the cross has been revered as a sacred symbol, it is hard for us to imagine the utter horror and revulsion that even the mention of the cross provoked in the people of the ancient world. Crucifixion was not simply an early form of capital punishment, comparable to our electric chair, gas chamber or lethal injection. The Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.” In Roman society the Latin word crux (cross) was considered an obscene, four letter word, not to be uttered in polite conversation. Crucifixion was, by all intent, cruel and unusual punishment, used by the Romans to inspire terror in those who witnessed death on a cross. More than any other suffering, crucifixion manifested the extremes of inhuman cruelty.
Yet, through bearing this contemptible form of punishment, Jesus produced the most dramatic reversal the world has ever experienced. He turned this instrument of torture into the object of his followers’ proudest boast: “May I never boast of anything,” said Paul, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Gal 6:14)
The passion and death of Jesus on the cross was the heart of the earliest Christian proclamation and the center of Christian belief. Paul taught that Jesus humbled himself, becoming like a slave, obedient unto death. “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). His death was “foolishness” in the eyes of the world, a “stumbling block” for many, yet in God’s design “wisdom” and “power” (1 Cor 1:18, 23-24). The gospels reach their climax in the passion accounts. In the gospel of Mark, the question “Who do you say I am?” is answered most fully at the death of Jesus on the cross: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39)
In every age it is tempting to deny the full reality of the cross. We like serene crucifixes. The gospel could be made much more intellectually and emotionally attractive if we suppressed its most distinctive feature, the crucifixion of Jesus. Every age of Christianity is tempted to explain salvation in a way that can be defended by logical argument and will not make us look foolish, in a way that denies the full reality of the cross. Plain and simple, the cross is a scandal. We must not deny its scandalous nature so that, as Paul says, “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17)
A God who remained isolated from human suffering, majestically insulated in his heaven, would not be a convincing or reliable God in our suffering world. The cross is our most powerful reminder that God is with us even in pain and tragedy and seemingly hopeless situations. Paul gave meaning to his own suffering by considering suffering an opportunity to be united in the love that Jesus showed in his death on the cross: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4:10) Paul said that his own wounds are “the marks of Jesus” on his body. Though suffering is often senseless and irrational, we do not suffer alone. Such realization allows us to endure and accept the suffering that is part of our human condition and the pain that comes in every life.
Why are we tempted to deny the full reality of the cross?