In the first century, the cross was a symbol of sacrifice par excellence. For the Roman Empire, crucifixion was the chief and utterly successful form of capital punishment. The one crucified always died. Proving demonstrably, irrefutably that there was no greater sacrifice than one’s life.
In our day, though it remains Christianity’s central symbol, how suitable is the cross? For a symbol to be a symbol, it must point beyond itself to an oft unseen reality, instantly conveying its meaning. If we, looking at the symbol, wonder, “What does it mean?” then it’s not a symbol; rather, in the case of a cross, only two pieces of material, however artful, connected perpendicularly one to another. (A child, pointing at the cross, once asked me, “Why do you have a ‘t’ up there?”)
Perhaps we need something else.
Recently, a friend and I pondered the possibilities of hanging an electric chair from the church ceiling or draping the altar with the bi-colored intravenous tubing and hypodermic needles of lethal injection. Then, in capitalist spirit, we could manufacture and market miniature electric chairs and tubes and needles, some made of natural materials for the environmentally conscious, others of precious metals, even diamond encrusted, for wearing around the neck.
Amid our musings, it occurred to me that the trouble with the cross isn’t its antiquity. (If that were all, then I simply could choose a contemporary image that most folk understand, thus having symbolic resonance.) The problem with the cross is precisely because it represents sacrifice, verily, self-sacrifice.
Where I live on Capitol Hill amid our American upper-middle class and beyond experience, I sometimes wonder who (including me) daily really desires self-sacrifice? Yes, many folk do many laudably loving things for others, whether family and friends or strangers, whether near or far. And, among the 20-and-30-somethings I know, they, to a person, have a heart for what I term social entrepreneurialism, employing their resources of intellect and imagination, money and moxie, conviction and compassion to act on behalf of our sisters and brothers who suffer hunger and thirst, nakedness and homelessness, or the absence of liberty and opportunity. Still, most of us, I think, have a difficult time envisioning and much less living a life without freedom to dream, power to choose and options from which to choose, all with some sense of assurance that we can bring our dreams to light. Our daily vocabulary, indeed, our American cultural DNA is infused with self-aggrandizement, self-assertion, self-fulfillment, self-gratification. Not self-sacrifice.
Again, we need something else. Surely, there are better, more fitting things disciples can take up. Perhaps iPhones or iPads. Each, more than the cross, is a recognizable and attractive symbol of our daily living. Each can be handled and carried conveniently and efficiently. Each, as a burden of our choosing, is a relevant symbol of who we are: capable, purposeful, resourceful. Each, with which we email, text and tweet, and access social media, enables our 24-hour engagement with the world and the world with us. All of which means our perhaps unconscious, but no less purposeful loss of moments of silence for self-reflection and self-examination so to discover and to rediscover the center of our psyches, our souls. All of which spells the greatest sacrifice, short of death, of coming to daily terms with the only individual any of us knows and truly can know. But at least it’s a sacrifice of our choosing.
On immediate second thought, I believe that we still need the cross. Again, precisely because it is a symbol of self-sacrifice…
It is a symbol of the lengths to which one might go to give of self and substance to others, truly to give up self and substance for others…
It is a symbol, though it can be beatified, made of precious metal or finely carved wood, of a bloody, tragic death, which was the real result of real engagement with a real world…
It is a symbol that reminds us that our obligation, verily, our lives are to be spent in the service of others, for there, in such losing of our lives, we find our lives – writ large in personality and possibility through our abiding, real and real-time, concrete (not cyber-) connection with the world around us.