The Easter story, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has made the cross likely the most recognized icon on earth. But its meaning is very much in the eye of the beholder, whether Christian or non-Christian, devout or far from it.
From Crusader times onward, the cross accompanied or even led European military power. The cross has adorned schools, orphanages and hospitals around the world, including the residential schools that proved so devastating for Indigenous Canadians. Outsiders, especially Jews and Muslims brought within the fold, often by main force, have their own complex reactions to it. Within Christianity—and within what was once Christendom—the meaning of the cross is just as multifaceted.
Many of the faithful recoil from decidedly untraditional crucifixes like sculptor Edwina Sandys’ Christa, a depiction of the feminine divine nailed to the cross, while others embrace it. In Quebec, virtually the definition of a post-Catholic society, popular opinion rose en masse in 2013 to preserve the francophone majority’s “cultural” heritage—the National Assembly’s prominently displayed crucifix—when the PQ government began talking about banning religious symbolism in government service. In the United States, though, secular-minded Americans strive to remove Christian crosses from public spaces.
The cross is seen as a tribal marker in both instances, but one response celebrates the solidarity inspired by such a symbol, while the other stresses the equally inherent theme of exclusion.
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One small story illustrates the place of the cross in contemporary thought, points out theologian and historian Robin Jensen in her sweeping account of the cross’s place in Christianity and Western culture, The Cross: History, Art and Controversy. In the wreckage of the World Trade Center, a worker found two intersecting steel beams—the cruciform shape a coincidence to the irreligious, and a symbol of hope and endurance to the religious. The Ground Zero Cross, as it quickly became known, was Installed on a mound of rubble and sprinkled with holy water by a Catholic priest who said masses beneath it. The cross attracted devout pilgrims and curious tourists without notable controversy, until it was brought into the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Then the lawsuits began—the cross was a slap at the non-Christian victims of 9/11, it had no place in a publicly funded institution. The museum prevailed in court, however, on the grounds its exhibit had already made the transition from religious symbol to historical artifact.
For Jensen, modern-day debate over the meaning of the cross is nothing new. It’s a mirror, in fact, of the experiences of early Christians, who found the manner, more than the fact, of Jesus’s death “an almost incomprehensible shock,” she says in an interview. It took centuries of theological debate and devotional practices for the cross to assume what has seemed ever since to most Christians to be its rightful place as the ultimate emblem of faith, and even then its meaning has continued to evolve.
In the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion it was hard enough for some Jesus followers to accept that God could die at all. Many, grouped loosely under the term docetists (from the Greek work “to seem”), refused to believe that what witnesses attested actually happened. It wasn’t Jesus on the cross, argued some, but someone who took his place: Simon of Cyrene, the onlooker who in the Gospels was plucked from the crowd by Roman soldiers and forced to carry the cross for a weakened Jesus. Most Gnostic accounts, reflecting that tradition’s contempt for physical existence, had no need for a substitute. The earth-bound, “fleshly” Jesus died, but not the divine being. In the Gospel of Philip Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” becomes the cry of the human Jesus at the moment the divine, incorporeal Christ leaves him.
Although such beliefs may have been widespread enough to have left their mark in the Gospels in the mysterious figure of Simon, and certainly did linger into the second century—when they were condemned by orthodox Church fathers—docetism was eventually marginalized. Mainstream Christianity rallied around the response of St. Paul, perhaps the crucifixion’s most eloquent defender. He faced head on that the shameful way Jesus died was a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” who both rejected the idea that a victim of crucifixion could be divine.
They had it exactly backwards, according to Paul: Christ’s death on the cross was a necessary part of salvation. “His argument was that Jesus had to suffer the most hideous, demeaning, degrading death possible,” says Jensen. “Jesus had fall to the darkest depths of human experiences—betrayal, abandonment, torture, death—to ascend to the heights of divine glory.”
Paul’s crucifix theology, pregnant with meaning for later Christians, mainly flowed under the surface for the faith’s first centuries, at least as far as visual imagery went. Even the fourth-century events that showed how important the cross had already become—the vision experienced by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who saw a cross in the sky accompanied by the words “In this sign you will conquer,” and his mother Helena’s recovery of the True Cross—the bare cross was slow to appear on sarcophagi and reliquaries. And the crucifix—Christ on the cross—trailed far behind, not coming into common usage until the sixth century, startlingly late, given how ubiquitous it would become.
Those first crucifixes are strange to modern Western eyes, bearing a serenely triumphant Christ, victorious over death. Often he wears a full robe of imperial purple and a crown (of authority, not thorns), and seems hardly to be suffering. The contrast with the medieval Jesus in agony couldn’t be more stark, and represents the same dichotomy that arose in the 16th-century Reformation, summed up by Jensen as, “Which of Christ’s two natures do you want to emphasize, his humanity or his divinity?”
The Middle Ages vastly preferred the latter. The cross became locked in place, writes Jensen: “No other Christian symbol or artifact was—or would ever be—so revered in its own right.” In an explosion of poetry, liturgy and legend, the cross came alive, sometimes literally so, moving from prop to actor in the Passion story. Legend connected the tree that produced the cross to the Tree of Life in Eden, making the cross tree a graft that took root upon the grave of Adam—illustrations of the scene at Calvary often placed Adam’s skull at the foot of the cross. In the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, the cross tells the story of the crucifixion and how it too partook of Jesus’s suffering—the nails driven into it, the blood that flowed over it—before being buried itself. Centuries later, unearthed by Helena, it has become the new tree of life, plated in gold, silver and jewels, exalted beyond all other trees.
The Christ upon that tree of life—nearly naked, chin drooping and belly collapsed, crowned with thorns, with rivulets of blood flowing over him—is the embodiment of St. Paul’s image of the degrading cruelties of crucifixion. “Broken, dead, human,” in Jensen’s words, this crucified Jesus symbolized God’s love, as important to salvation for medieval people as his victory over death. The intensity of the desire for a sympathetic, merciful deity who knew intimately human pain is visible in everything from the stigmata borne by St. Francis of Assisi, the first ever recorded, to the Isenheim Altarpiece. Matthias Grunewald’s masterpiece was created on the cusp of the Reformation for the monastery of St. Anthony near Isenheim, whose monks ran a hospital with a reputation for providing care during plagues and at all times for those suffering from skin diseases. The crucified Christ, in addition to his other marks of torture, is pitted with ulcers, a graphic avowal to patients that Jesus fully experienced their afflictions.
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In the lands of the Protestant Reformation, that was all swept away by reformers suspicious of idolatry, from saints’ images to crucifixes, leaving only the bare cross—the one fundamental symbol accepted by both icon haters and icon lovers.
The Catholic response was to double down on the richness and detail of the imagery, creating one of the enduring boundary markers of the two branches of Christianity. “If the basic Catholic response to a crucifix is empathy, identification, sorrow, consciousness of your own guilt in what happened,” Jensen says, “the essential Protestant response is, ‘Why leave him there? The empty cross, like the empty tomb, is the sign of victory, Christ has departed in glory’.”
That’s not to say Protestantism does not ponder the sufferings of Christ in other ways, adds Jensen, a Lutheran married to a Catholic, citing several early Methodist hymns that yield to no Catholic visual art in their images of blood and pain.
The cross remains today as central and as debated an icon as ever. It shows up at non-sacred places, like the sites of fatal traffic accidents, in an attempt to sanctify them. The Ku Klux Klan still sets them ablaze, the Chinese government has recently removed crosses from the exteriors of churches, while Jews demanded their removal from Auschwitz in the 1980s.
For some Christians and would-be Christians the cross has lost some, at least, of its liberating lustre. Jensen talks of how she has seen Christian places of worship across the ideological spectrum, from liberal Protestant to conservative megachurches, where religious signs of all sorts, including crosses, have been removed from sight. “Crosses in particular make congregants and prospective members uncomfortable,” she says, “because they associate them with ‘oppressive’ church practices they are trying to leave behind.”
Feminist cross critiques have formed a powerful current in modern Christianity, with theologians arguing that images of the crucifixion encourage submission to injustice, especially in women, amounting to a demand that the abused “take up their cross” in silent endurance. Some Christians, especially Indigenous faithful, identify profoundly with the crucified Christ as an emblem of oppressed peoples. “For them, to ignore the suffering Christ is to ignore human suffering,” says Jensen.
One aspect of the artistic expression of those ways of thinking is the appearance of the marginalized, from women to slaves, upon crucifixes. Another is My Sweet Lord, an anatomically correct Jesus, in a pose of crucifixion but lacking loincloth and cross, made of chocolate by Canadian sculptor Cosimo Cavallaro.
And many contemporary Christians “find the very idea that guilt is absolved by violent death to be abhorrent,” remarks Jensen, and want to move to a spirituality of reconciliation. But there is no “side-stepping the cross” in a faith that rests upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians, she concludes, will continue to explore ways of telling their story of how the cross brings justice to an unjust world.