May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the
world. Galatians 6:14 (NIV)
Everyone was dressed so nicely: suits and ties, high heels and pearls.
One woman looked especially graceful in her classic black dress,
accented with delicate jewelry; absolutely elegant in a wonderfully
understated way. Her necklace featured a tasteful, sterling chain
accented with one small pendant of a very simple, highly polished
design. Smooth and stylized, the charm was an unmistakable
representation of an electric chair.
Then I woke up.
|I wonder if the historians
could tell us when the cross started to become pretty.
I wonder if the historians could tell us when the cross started to
become pretty. I don't mean beautiful. To the Christian the cross will
always be beautiful (and certainly, that beauty can be symbolized
artistically and worn close to the heart). But pretty? Even apart from
the physical reality of rough-hewn timbers, hammer-gouged and
bloodstained, there is the transcendent reality of the cross: what
really happened there; the unspeakable horror; the unfathomable
I wonder, too, what all the prettiness does to my ability to be
touched by the cross, to contemplate its significance, to shed a tear in
recognition of the inescapable fact that Jesus suffered and died there
Oh yes, the cross is a scene of universal magnetism. The songs, the
poems, the sermons, the books and essays, the sculptures and paintings,
the plays and pageants and pilgrimages -- doesn't the endless procession
of artistic homage insist that we have indeed considered the cross?
Touched by it? We are inundated with it!
But isn't that part of the problem? Can't there be a kind of
overexposure that blunts the meaning of the cross? To be brutally
honest, don't we have to admit that the cross is a cliché?
Writers for a new sitcom want to portray a smarmy, religious buffoon,
so they hang a big, gaudy cross from the actor's neck. The critics give
the show negative reviews and the producer whines, "They crucified
us! Call the Red Cross!" The director moans, "Oh great, one
more cross to bear -- as if these childish actors weren't enough!"
Sarcastically he intones, "Forgive them, they know not what they
do." And so, with gold chains, crosses, ankhs and a half-dozen
other contradictory trinkets jangling on his chest, he jumps in his
sports car and heads for the airport. On the way, he passes hospitals,
insurance offices, schools, and consulates that all employ crosses in
their logos, though no one seems to remember why. At the airport, he
boards the private jet that will whisk him to his desert getaway near
Las Cruces, New Mexico. Maybe the cross really is a cliché.
Wait, though. Which cross are we looking at? Do you see a cross that
is somehow romantic, though perhaps a bit trite? A fantasized, plastic
crucifix? Is that the Cross of Christ or is it an adornment in the
man-made sanctuary where we seek refuge from the real cross? Sitting in
padded pews, is our view of a hurting world a little too obscured and
colorized by the stained glass through which we look at life? Protected
by stone walls and flying buttresses, do we take a little too much
comfort in a polished and stylized cross? And as we remember the blood
shed on the cross, does the pasteurized grape juice we drink from the
clear, plastic, sterilized thimbles go down just a little too easily?
cross shockingly proclaims the very thing I don't want to hear.
The authentic cross shockingly proclaims the very thing I don't want
to hear. So I turn from the cross. Or if I must come to it, I'll bring
cleaning solution, sand paper and paint. Lord, I love you. Let me smooth
the splintery edges. Let me make your cross somehow less brutal, less
repulsive, less real. I don't want to know that the cross is a bloody
mess, a shameful scandal that must shock and hurt me.
After all, Lord, my friends and I are fairly good and decent folk. We
don't need or deserve to be exposed to such horror. We needn't talk of
atrocity or scandal. We cannot forget our propriety. We must not be cut
A literal cross is a scene of failure, disgrace, and torture. The
shame of the cross is the very antithesis of Divine Majesty. It is the
ultimate affront to human dignity. Surely the only proper response is to
turn away in sickened disbelief. Wasn't that what Jesus' own apostles
did? Tell me again what Jesus said about love. Let me recall his
blessing of the children. But don't show me an uncensored cross.
But without the cross there is no love and there can be no blessing.
Knowing that, can I go beyond repulsion and denial to the compelling
reality of a Savior's perfect sacrifice? I guess Jesus doesn't really
need me to dignify his cross; any such effort is doomed to result only
in a pathetic sort of well-intentioned sacrilege. Still, the urge
remains because a literal cross seems too much to bear. The tendency has
always been with us. Even before that black day, proud and weak humanity
had already begun denying the reality of the cross. From the time of
Peter's confession of Christ right up to the very end, Jesus repeatedly
explained that he would suffer and be killed and then be raised three
days later. Remember from Matthew 16:22, how Peter reacted the first
time Jesus mentioned the subject? "No way, Lord! Never, not you!"
Still, there it is in the very next verse, the Lord's stern response: "
Out of my sight, Satan! You are a
stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but
the things of men." (NIV)
And thus it has been for nearly two millennia. To us the cross is
the scandal, the stumbling block, the offense.
But Christ insists that the real scandal or offense is this human
reaction to the cross. To truly acknowledge all the cross is and says,
sinful humanity must get past the basic urge to deny or alter the
reality. Our problem is not only one of ignorance and indifference
though these are considerable in our time. The problem is also that sort
of misguided propriety which seeks somehow to refine and sterilize the
|By the first
century AD, crucifixion had been developed to a science of exquisitely
prolonged torture and death.
By the first century AD, crucifixion had been developed to a science
of exquisitely prolonged torture and death. This form of execution was
all too familiar to the first readers of the Gospel. There was no need
to go into detail. That may not be true today, so descriptions of the
medical horrors Jesus endured may serve a purpose. The scourging, the
nails, the continual cramping of the muscles, the inability to take a
breath, the spittle of his tormentors, the insects burrowing into his
wounds; Jesus felt every one of these. But Scripture does not focus on
these torments at all. Rather, it calls us to consider what must have
been the most excruciating pain of all. The burden of my sins and yours,
our guilt and shame that he bore; what words can depict that
agony? How dare we compare that cosmic throe with any physical pang?
His radical, affronting grace cries out from the cross: In your
place! With three simple words, he invites me to put aside my own
ill-defined and pretentious dignity. In your place! With three
simple words, he identifies with me and bids me come lose my identity in
"In your place I cried, 'Forsaken!"' he says. "Now, in
my place, you may cry, 'Father!' I have taken your sinfulness; now take
my righteousness. I paid your penalty; now receive my reward. I died
your death for sin; now come live my life of glory. What was yours, I
have taken as mine. Now what is mine, come take as yours!"
And then he cries out, "It is finished!" But there is no
tone of defeat, no sigh of resignation. This is nothing less than a
victory cry. "It is accomplished ! I have won!" How can such
words echo from a cross? They can because, indeed, all is finished on
the cross. From that point on, nothing is the same. As he cries, "It
is finished," he is also saying, "Now it begins!"
Finished are the law's unmet demands, hanging over our heads like a
curse, now completely fulfilled on our behalf by the perfect Lamb. Begun
is the liberating law written on the heart, righteousness offered as a
grateful gift. Finished is the darkness of ignorance, begun is the Light
which is Christ. Finished is this mere existence in the death of sin,
begun is the celebration of the bountiful life in the Spirit. Finished
is the deformation from our fallenness, begun is the transformation into
There was a separation but that wall has been razed; the veil is
ripped, the chasm bridged. In place of alienation from God there is
reconciliation. The sacrifice, being perfect, must never be repeated.
Christ died once, for all; there is nothing any of us can ever do to
make the gift better or the work more effective. There remains only to
say "Finished!" to self and "Begun!" to Christ.
There remains only to embrace a belief lived out in total surrender.
Since his righteousness is now ours, then his Father is ours, his joy is
ours, his abundance is ours, his glory is ours, his home is ours. Even
now, he is preparing there a place for us (John 4:1-3).
I stand, then, confronted by the cross. Shall I turn away, insisting
that I can somehow save myself? Shall I stay, only to give a mock
obedience, a pretense of righteousness made up of compromise and
self-determination? Or will I find the grace to forego my
self-satisfaction, safety, comfort, dignity, and propriety? Can I simply
kneel at the cross and let the full force of its message pierce my
heart? Can I let Christ's cross crucify me, too?
Really, the cross offers me only one option. If I want to be made
whole, I must be broken. If I am to be fully healed there, I must be
mortally wounded there. If I desire to live with Christ in his home, I
must die with Christ on his cross.