Spiritually Speaking

Why a Cross?

April 20, 2011, POSTED BY Spiritually Speaking

By Lucy Reid
Lucy Reid is a Christian and an Anglican priest, working at St Michael and All Angels Church, Royal Oak

This is Holy Week for many Christians throughout the world – the period in which the death and resurrection of Jesus are commemorated. On Good Friday we tell the story of his trial, condemnation and execution.  The gospels recount his silence in the face of false accusations, and his seeming passivity. He goes to his death alone, and cries out in anguish to God on the cross, before surrendering his spirit into God’s hands.

It’s not a pretty story. Even with the resurrection narrative that follows, celebrated on Easter Sunday, there is no undoing of the brutality and ugliness of the crucifixion.  The mystery of new life breaking in and transforming death doesn’t cancel it out or smooth it away with amnesia.

It would be more palatable if Christians had images of resurrection as our key symbols, but we don’t, we have a cross – not flowers or rainbows or bunnies or butterflies, but a cross, an instrument of torture and death. In the Roman Catholic tradition the cross usually has the figure of Jesus on it. In the Protestant tradition the cross is usually empty. But either way, it’s a cross.

Does this make Christians morbid and maudlin? Or prone to glorifying suffering? Or in the thrall of an angry punishing God who demands the death of his Son to appease his wrath for the sins of the world? I’ve always instinctively recoiled from these interpretations of the cross. It wasn’t until I went to Central America that I began to see the cross in another light.

In San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, a chapel in the grounds of a convent has a memorial to the beloved Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was gunned down in 1980 during the civil war by an assassin, in order to rid the repressive right-wing government of a prelate who had become an out-spoken champion for human rights and social change in his country. Monseñor Romero was the bishop of the poor, and he knew his life was in danger. Shortly before his death he said in an interview, “May my death be for the freedom of my people… If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero was assassinated in the convent chapel while saying mass– the sacramental celebration of the death of Christ. And today, on the wall behind the altar, are these words in Spanish: “At this altar Monseñor Oscar Romero gave his life to God for the sake of the people.” When I saw that for the first time, the symbol of the cross ceased to be abstract and problematic for me, and instead became a powerful statement about the ultimate price of love and justice which some great human beings have been willing to pay.

The Chapel of La Divina Providencia, San Salvador

The cross refuses to diminish human suffering and our capacity for evil. It faces us with the worst that we can do without glossing over it. We kill and are killed. We suffer and cause suffering. Christ is continually being nailed to the cross. Like other memorials to human atrocities, we have to take it seriously.

But the cross also bears witness to the courage, self-giving and costly love of which we are capable. Many many Salvadorans gave their lives in the struggle for justice during the 1980s – priests, human rights workers, unionists, teachers, nuns, journalists, students, ordinary men and women.

The cross is the place where the evil of the world is intersected by the invincible power of love. And in it we see God.

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