The great mystery of the cross

The crest of a clan, the corporate logo of a business, the emblem of an organization. Such things are chosen because in some way they represent what that thing is all about.

A clan crest may depict a lion to showcase bravery, or an oak tree to depict stability and strength.

A corporate logo usually contains the name of the corporation, but it may instead be a symbol that calls to mind that name (such as the “golden arches” of McDonalds or the V atop a W of Volkswagen).

An organizational emblem calls to mind the mission of the organization. In Star Wars, the Imperial crest was designed based on the shape of fortifications in use in the 18th century. It was chosen to represent stability and order, which the Empire attempted to impose by force on the galaxy. On the other hand, the Alliance Starbird of the Rebels was originally depicted as a symbol of the Old Republic. Since the Rebels sought to overthrow the Empire and bring back a representative government, they chose a symbol of the Old Republic as a reminder of their goal.

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. What does the cross represent?

The cross is an instrument of not only torture but also humiliation. A person who was crucified was not merely executed but utterly defeated. Under the Romans, victims of crucifixion were normally stripped naked. The body was left hanging for a long time as an example for all to see, unless someone put in a request for the body for a burial and had that request granted. Cicero, who was born approximately a century before Jesus, wrote that the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, and his ears. Everyone knew about it, but nobody talked about it in polite company.

And yet, Christians almost immediately after the time of Jesus began adopting the cross as a symbol of Christianity. In the eyes of the world, this is insanity. It would be like choosing a hangman’s noose or electric chair or syringe filled with poison as a symbol.

G.K. Chesterton wrote the following in a book about Serbia/Kosovo during World War I:

“And that sign, which Constantine saw in heaven above his eagles, should be enough in itself to convey that mystery of Christendom which must always be a menace to its enemies. There is but one religion which can only decorate even its triumphs with an emblem of defeat. There is only one army which carries the image of its own captain, not enthroned or riding, but captured and impaled.”

The very symbol of Christianity is a symbol not of power and glory and majesty, but of defeat. And yet Chesterton clearly saw something that has always escaped the intellectual elite of the world. The cross is actually more powerful than any symbol of power or glory or majesty BECAUSE it is a symbol of defeat.

The cross shows that even when he allows himself to be defeated, God does not lose. All the darkness of anger and despair and sin and death struck Jesus. He died. He was buried. He was finished.

And yet….

And yet the response of Jesus was like the response of Muhammed Ali to George Foreman when Foreman hit Ali hard to the jaw near the end of their big fight and disoriented him. As Ali regained his balance while grappling with Foreman, he whispered in Foreman’s ear, “Is that all you got?”

Three days after he was struck down, Jesus said the same thing to sin and death. Yes, you killed me. Yes, in the eyes of the world you won. I was humiliated. I was defeated. You did your best.

And yet, I still exist. I can rise from the dead. In fact, I have even more power now than I did before my death. If your best has defeated me, and that defeat has made me not weaker but stronger, what more can you possibly do?

That is why the cross is the symbol of Christianity. It perfectly captures what being a Christian is all about. The cross cannot be defeated, for it IS defeat. It is defeat in all the ways the world views success. The world cares about power and prestige, wealth and social position, material possessions and societal standing. The defeat Jesus suffered on the cross annihilated all of those things.

But without them, Jesus was still God. Without them, Jesus still existed. Without them, Jesus was still able to love and be loved.

For love matters more than anything else. It is not power or glory or possessions that define us. It is love. Love conquers all. Love is the greatest power in all of existence. Love is the innermost nature of God himself. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we also have the capacity to give and receive love.

All of us will eventually die, and in dying be defeated. We will lose our power, prestige, wealth, social standing, possessions… everything outside of us, and even part of us as our body is lost until the end of time. But through that defeat, we will also rise with Jesus to a new and glorified life if we persist in love.

Yes, my captain was captured and impaled. The crucifix I see at church hanging above the tabernacle reminds me of that every Sunday. The crucifix I have on display in my home reminds me of that whenever I see it. My own personal sufferings remind me every day that I face challenges as well, that sin and death stalk me just as they stalked Jesus.

But my relationship with Jesus, my faith in my savior, helps me remember that sin does not get the last word. I do. Through love, I can look directly at sin as I am being defeated and take away all of its power by merely saying, with a loving and determined heart:

Is that all you got?