by Alice Ling
I’m not sure what I expected, but then again you never know what will happen when you open a door and invite people to walk through it. Clearly, I underestimated the possibilities. I invited a few women to imagine options for color and creativity as part of our Lenten observance. They in turn invited members of the congregation to express their prayer through art. We handed out foam crosses, encouraged individuals and families to take them home, personalize them in whatever way appealed to them and bring them back. Throughout the season, our display grew as two dozen or more crosses found their way to the front of the sanctuary, offering color, creativity and personal expressions of the prayers in our midst. Prayers for peace, a drape of old lace, a hand knit shawl, stripes of the rainbow covenant, faces of God’s children around the world, bubble wrap to cushion the harshness of Christ’s suffering. The foam went out, and the prayers made their way in. Together, we journeyed through Lent, toward the cross and through to the other side and the celebration of Easter dawn.
I was deeply moved by the response: vibrant, vital, and truly an intergenerational effort. I heard a few stories, but for the most part, I only imagined the prayers that were represented in the designing, gluing, painting, wrapping and offering that hung in front of us. I celebrated every time a parent handed me a cross and said, my child did this and wanted to make sure it got here. I admit I didn’t create one myself, but I said from the start that my art forms are more wordy and musical than visual. The other thing I did not do, throughout the season while folks in the congregation were creating, was find a way to talk about the cross.
Two years later and I’m still digging for words that articulate what this shape is, upon and around which we hung our prayers. The central symbol of the Christian faith, yes. But why? What does it mean? And why do we wear it, display it, bow before it and hang our hearts’ deepest longings on it?
First of all, the cross is an ugly, disgusting symbol of human torture. Sort of like the gallows or hangman’s noose, except worse because death on a cross was slower and more inhumane. It was the accepted form of execution by the state for crimes so reprehensible that the perpetrator must forfeit his or her life and suffer the ultimate cruelty. It was a common means of execution in the days when Jesus lived, and both the biblical and objective historical records of the time give us every reason to believe it was the way in which Jesus was killed.
But none of that comments on the meaning that Christianity has infused into this gruesome symbol or why it has been elevated above all others. I hardly even know for certain anymore what traditional Christian theology says about the cross; these days, a lot of what is popular is soaked in blood and mounted on purpose. How many times have I heard it said that Jesus came to die, that the whole reason he ever walked this earth was so that he could hang, bleed, suffer and die for me and my sins? And how blasphemous do I sound if I say that just doesn’t cut it for me?
Everything I know and have come to believe about Jesus tells me that he didn’t come to this earth to die; rather he came to live, and to show us how to live a life that is grounded and rooted in God. He came because God passionately wanted to reach us and get our attention, and hoped that wearing skin and walking the road with us would help that happen. He helped us understand God’s love and longing for all God’s children, and showed us first-hand how God would have us live. Jesus walked on this earth with unfailing integrity, and from an unwavering commitment to love, justice, the needs and wholeness of all God’s people, and the truth. All too often, this world does not look kindly on such passion, and on one who will not kow-tow to the privilege and power the world elevates. Rather than listen to and learn from him, the powers that be sought to silence him. And Jesus refused to back down, even to save his own neck.
I do kneel before the cross, because I see there the tragic and all too predictable response to such a life. I see its ugly brutality, and marvel at the love that would empower a person to endure it all. I am profoundly humbled to know that there is a Loving Heart who knows my silence, caution, distractedness and countless other shortcomings, and yet reaches for me, saying, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you. No place I wouldn’t go to help you believe in yourself even a smidgen as much as I believe in you. Nothing I wouldn’t endure to bring about your healing and wholeness. If being with you and for you means facing humiliation and betrayal, suffering and death, so be it; you are worth that to me. I will accompany you through your valley of the shadow of death and grief, emptiness and weariness, so that we may walk together into the dawn of a new day. I marvel to be the recipient of such a Love, so exquisitely intimate and at the same time sweepingly universal, offered to each of us and to all of us.
I cherish the vision of those adorned foam crosses stretching across the chancel of that sanctuary, but I don’t think the cross will ever be my favorite symbol of the Christian faith or that I’ll be sporting cross jewelry any time soon. But I do affirm the debt I owe to One who was willing to go there for the sake of humanity. When we get to Friday in this long week, I will kneel again at the cross, giving thanks for the One who came and lived, suffered and died in the name and for the sake of such a wondrous love.