The Sign of the Cross
One of the prerequisites for doing business nowadays is to have a logo. A sign or symbol which people will immediately recognize and identify with a certain product or company. Some logos have become very famous: The ‘Coca Cola’ name written in cursive letters, McDonald’s ‘Golden Arches’, the Hallmark greeting card ‘Crown’, ‘General Electric’s’ stylized initials, and Heinz’s ’57 varieties’ to name a few.
Although the Cross is displayed in endless varieties, it is immediately recognized by everyone as the logo of our Christian Faith – whether it is displayed with the image of Christ (the Crucifix) or without the image of Christ. It is carved out of wood, cast in iron, burnished in copper, hewn out of marble, molded in plastic, and even lit up in neon. It stands atop steeples, is worn on necklaces, appears on bumper stickers, and hangs above pulpits and altars.
As the logo of the Christian faith, the Cross symbolizes many things. It is a symbol of unspeakable cruelty: the most horrible instrument of torture ever devised by humankind. The Phoenicians, we are told, invented the cross after being frustrated with other ways of killing people. They impaled their victims on stakes, boiled them with oil, skinned them alive, and burned them to death. Although these methods were horribly painful, nevertheless they did not completely satisfy the sadistic Phoenician executioners: their victims died too quickly. So the Phoenicians sought a method of torture which could inflict the maximum intensity of pain for the maximum period of time. The result was the cross – later adopted and modified by the Romans who executed Jesus.
In 1968, Israeli archeologists discovered in a burial cave near Jerusalem, the skeleton of a man who was nailed to a cross about 2000 years ago. The man’s name, ‘Yehohanan,’ was chiseled into the tomb. A detailed report on this discovery has been published in the Journal of the Israeli Exploration Society. Traditionally, paintings have depicted Christ as having been crucified with nails driven through the palms of his outstretched hands and through his feet with the toes pointed downward. Yehohanan, however, was nailed to the crossbar through the forearms. His feet were placed together and turned sideways, with the spike driven through the two heels. This left the man with his body twisted to one side. A small wooden block called a ‘sedacual’ was placed on his cross to give added support, thus prolonging the agony of dying. It is estimated that such victims as Yehohanan usually hung on the cross for at least 24 hours, and sometimes for 36 hours or even longer, until death mercifully intervened.
So the sign of the cross, wherever it appears, is a silent witness to human cruelty. It pronounces judgment upon the Romans and the Phoenicians – but also upon the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Americans, the Africans – yes, upon all mankind. For after the cross came the rack, the iron boot, the crossbow, the rifle, germ warfare, the gas ovens, the a-bomb, the h-bomb, and all the other instruments humans have devised to maim and kill each other.
To the people of Jesus’ time, the cross also was a symbol of abandonment – abandonment by God. It was a sign that the person who hung there was an outcast of the almighty. ‘If you are the King of the Jews,’ jeered the soldiers, ‘save yourself’ (Luke 23:37). ‘He trusts in God; let God deliver him now’ said the high priests (Matthew 27:43). If it really was true, as some had said, that this carpenter from Nazareth was the Son of God, why didn’t God send a platoon of angels to rescue him?
No one was more aware of that contradiction than Jesus himself. His pain was more than physical. He expressed the personal and spiritual agony of abandonment when he cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). To know that his friends had forsaken him, that was bad enough, but the thought of being forsaken by God – the God who had sent him to earth in the first place, the God whom he had served faithfully for 33 years – that was the depths of Hell. If you take away everything that God is, all you have left is hell. The innocent Jesus was mocked and spat upon as a transgressor. He was condemned as one who really deserved to die. And God turned His back. Or so it seemed.
If the Cross meant only these two things – man’s cruelty and God’s absence – it would have faded from the human scene in ignominy. But the Cross proclaims a third message, which is the reason for our hope. It delivers the promise of salvation. It announces the Good News that, in Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself.
In interpreting the meaning of the Cross, the Apostle Peter said, ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). ‘There is now no condemnation,’ said Paul, ‘For those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).
We stand in the presence of the great mystery of Christ dying for our sins. We remember that our Lord Jesus Christ, though innocent, was condemned to death so that we might be acquitted before the judgment seat of God, in spite of our rebelliousness.
An unforgettable parable of this salvation theme occurred in a World War 2 Japanese prisoner of war camp in the jungles of Thailand. Author Ernest Gordon tells this story of a prisoner who had been a soldier in the Scottish Argyll Regiment. He was in a work detail on the railroad. The day’s work had ended; the tools were being counted. When the party was about to be dismissed, the Japanese guard declared that a shovel was missing. He insisted someone had stolen it to sell to the Thais. He strode up and down in front of the prisoners, ranting and raving, denouncing them for their wickedness, their stupidity and their ingratitude to the emperor. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty person step forward to take his punishment. No one moved. The guard’s rage reached new heights of violence. ‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked.
To show that he meant what he said, he put the rifle to his shoulder, pulled the bolt back and looked down the sights, ready to fire at the prisoner standing at the end of the line. At that moment the Scottish soldier stood stiffly at attention and said calmly, ‘I did it.’ The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hatred. He kicked the hapless prisoner and beat him with his fists. Still the Scottish Argyll stood rigidly at attention. The blood was streaming down his face, but he made no sound. His silence goaded the guard to an excess of rage. He seized his rifle by the barrel and lifted it high over his head. With a final howl he brought the butt down on the skull of the man, who then sank limply to the ground and did not move. Although it was perfectly evident that he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when exhausted. The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guardhouse it was discovered that no shovel was missing.
‘So they took Jesus… to the place called the Place of the Skull… There they crucified him’. The Good Friday event has transformed the Cross from a symbol of cruelty, hatred and despair, to a sign of hope and joy. It stands proudly in and over churches everywhere. It offers hope to those who are weary of life. It promises forgiveness to those who are heavy with guilt. It gives meaning to those whose lives seem senseless. Amen.
By George Robert Iles