The Meaning of the Cross
With Easter right around the corner, it might be a good time to ask ourselves once again, why is it that a torture instrument is the central symbol of Christianity? How do we make sense of this symbol? There are many different ways of understanding the symbol of the cross, probably much more than can be fit into a single blog post, but I'm going to go for it anyway. This might get a little in depth, so hang onto your butts...
You have heard that Jesus died as a sacrifice to please God and save you from being punished for your sins. That is called "substitutionary atonement theory" and I view that theory as deeply flawed and even a harmful way of interpreting the cross. I won't get into all the reasons why, but I just want to put it out on the table that this is NOT my interpretation of the cross.
The Pattern of Death and Resurrection in Life
Let's start out with some relatively straightforward ways of understanding the cross. We all know that according to the Jesus story, death is not the end. It points forward to the resurrection. So this is a reminder that even though the leaves fall off the trees in winter and the trees look dead, we can trust that in summer they will come back to life. In the dead of night we can trust that the sun will rise in the morning. When we exhale our breath we can trust that it will return to us on the inhale. The cross is a reminder that death does not have the final word. It is not the end even if we don't fully understand why or how. Life and death are an interconnected cycle.
Death of the False Self
In the same way, throughout our lives we experience not one death but many. How many bad habits have you had to outgrow in order to move forward in life? As we grow spiritually there are things we need to let go of. As we let go of the things that no longer serve us and let them die, we make space for new things to be born into our lives. We might have to let a bad habit die or it could be a relationship, a job, a project, an idea or way of seeing the world. As we let go of these things we trust that its not the end of the world. We trust that something new is going to be on the other side of the door. There is more to it than that, but let's move on for now.
Vulnerability as Strength
The dominant theme of power in the world is that power lies in the ability to subdue your enemies, having great material wealth, physical strength etc. Most of the heroes we worship in our society are those who are rich and powerful and famous. It's why we love superheroes. We want to feel strong and invulnerable. The cross, and everything Jesus represented for that matter, turns this on its head. Jesus' life is a statement that real power can be found in vulnerability and in weakness. We cannot finally overcome the world by our own might and strength, because that's really just our egos and a desire for control. The ego wants to accumulate endlessly out of greed and fear. To act out of greed and fear...is that freedom and true strength? Or is strength rather our ability to face our lives willingly and with courage. Can we face both the joys and the sorrows of life with acceptance and an open heart? When we face and accept our measure of pain in this life, we eventually learn that it's precisely that which allows us to experience joy in life. When we try to close ourselves off to pain completely, we close ourselves off to happiness at the same time.
When we actively resist pain we only add to our suffering. What we resist, persists. This is at the core of what mindfulness teaches us. The more you run from life the more of a monster it becomes. When we open up and allow our pain to just be, we discover that it lessens and that we have the capacity to bear it and work through it. Just to give one simple illustration, when you get a mosquito bite you only make it worse by scratching it. You have to learn to let the itch be and pass, which allows the bite to heal. There are so many things like that in life. We often make things so much worse when we resist our pain.
God Suffers with Us
The symbol of the cross contradicts the idea that God is like some master puppeteer who controls things from a distance or an observer who stands off to the sidelines and simply watches everything we do. The cross is a statement that God is a participant in this creation. God is intimately involved in this world. God is not simply standing nearby when you suffer, God is experiencing the suffering with you AS you. God is in this thing with you. So when you see a suffering child, for example, and ask where God is in that situation, the answer is that God IS the child suffering.
Love is Greater than Fear
The first time my wife ever saw me cry was while watching the kids movie Inside Out. I won't get into all the details but there are these two characters, Joy and Bing Bong, that are on a mission to save a girl named Riley. Joy and Bing Bong live inside the mind of Riley and they get stuck in this place where memories go to be forgotten forever. They are both trying to use this wagon to rocket out of the pit of forgotten memories, but they just can't get high enough to make it out of there. Then, on one of their last attempts, Bing Bong hops off the wagon and without his weight Joy is able to make it out of the pit and continue the mission. Bing Bong willingly sacrificed himself for Joy and for Riley. As he is celebrating the fact that Joy made it out, he fades and disappears. The scene made me tear up pretty good. My wife looked over. Go figure, the first time she sees me cry is not when we got married, not when we had any of our kids, nope...its when Bing Bong dies. Having that realization made us both start laughing uncontrollably. Our kids looked at us and were genuinely disturbed because they couldn't understand why we were both laughing and crying and the same time.
Anyway, what is it about stories of self sacrifice that touch us so deeply? I know Bing Bong is not the only example. There are many movies, war movies, etc where you see the same kind of act and it always tugs at our heart strings. And of course this whole idea of willing self sacrifice is what the cross is all about, Jesus sacrificing himself for us. I think the reason that this touches us so deeply is because in that moment of self sacrifice we witness the great truth that love is greater than fear. If fear was greater, Bing Bong would have never sacrificed himself. It would seem that absolutely nothing is more basic than our instinct for self preservation. Yet in these moments of self sacrifice we see that love can transcend even our inherent attachment to our own lives. That is how powerful love is. It has the power to override even our most fundamental instinct to survive. Nothing is more powerful than that.
The Final Scapegoat
In ancient Jewish culture there was a tradition in which the chief priest would ritually lay all the sins of the people in the community onto a goat. The goat was then driven away into the desert. That is how they dealt with their own sin and guilt. This is where the term scapegoat comes from. It seems that in ancient times it was pretty common for us to use animals and even people to try and deal with our own sins and to try and appease the gods. Animal sacrifice was extremely common in ancient times and of course even child sacrifice was something that occurred. All these sacrifices were done in the name of trying to win God's favor. It was a way of trying to manipulate God into sending rain for the crops and good fortune and safety for the people. The cross, once again, turns all of this on its head. The cross is a statement in which essentially God says "You do not need to make sacrifices in order to gain my favor any longer. You never had to. I have always loved you and I always will. Just so you get the point, here, I will give my own self as a sacrifice FOR YOU. Let this be a sign of my love for you. You don't need to win me over. Instead I give myself to you."
This meaning is lost on us because we don't practice animal or human sacrifice, but this meaning was not lost on people in ancient times. The system of sacrificing to the gods was probably going on as long as people could remember. It was radically progressive to make this kind of statement at the time, that we don't need to reach out to God in that way anymore, but that God reaches out to US.
Even More Symbolism
We could stop there.
We could go a little further down the rabbit hole. For this section we are going to need a little help from our late friend Alan Watts and his amazing book Myth and Ritual in Christianity.
In a previous post I wrote that the ritual of communion symbolizes the eternal self sacrifice of God. In Matthew 26:26, during the last supper, Jesus broke the bread and told his disciples "Take and eat; this is my body." The bread symbolizes all the plant and animal life that becomes our food. We are nourished through the sacrifice of plants and animals, and in turn we sacrifice ourselves back to the Earth, to the worms and bacteria that break us down into the soil which nourishes the plants that grow above us. Then the cycle repeats from the beginning again. In this eternal act of creation giving itself to itself, God "the One" seems to become "the Many" and gets lost in all the myriad forms of life. God is always giving God's Self away and in this way life is eternally renewed. Needless to say, this sacrifice is symbolized in the cross as well. Just as everything else in creation is cyclical, so there is a kind of forgetting and remembering cycle that occurs in the life of God. We forget our identity in God and then we wake up and realize our true nature; we remember our union with God and then the cycle repeats. Death and resurrection.
Watts points out in his book that the Wood or Tree of the cross is "of the highest mythological significance." The cross is a kind of tree, and he points out that the symbolism of the tree is pretty universal indeed.
"In the Myth of Osiris, 'he who springs from the returning waters,' the body of God - slain by Set the Evil One - is found within a giant tamarisk or pine tree which had been cut down and used for the central pillar of the Palace of Byblos. Attis, son of the virgin Nana, died by self sacrifice under a pine tree. Gautama the Buddha, son of Maya, attained his supreme Awakening as he sat in meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree. Odin learned the wisdom of the runes by immolating himself upon the World Tree, Yggdrasil, with a spear cut from the same Tree."
Watts explains that the Tree symbolizes the world. It is life itself. Its stem is rooted in the unknown, while its branches and leaves represent the multiplicity of creatures and things. As Jesus points out in John 15:5, "I am the vine, you are the branches." Watts writes "The wood of the Tree is matter, prima materia, out of which all things are made, so that it is not unfitting that, in his earthly incarnation, the Son of God should be also the Son of the Carpenter - Joseph."
He further tells us that the cross symbolizes the world because of its shape, having four points in the same ways that the world has "four directions or quarters." Christ being nailed to the cross with five wounds (hands and feet plus a spear in the side) represents us feeling "stuck" in the world or "nailed" to the world with our five senses. We become overly identified with the world and our small sense of self. We lose a sense of the transcendent and feel trapped by our human condition. So long as we are trying to solve the problem of life and are lost in thought, we are unable to experience life as it truly is in the present moment. Once we surrender as Jesus does on the cross "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," once we give up the struggle to control life, we find freedom in letting go. Through a deep acceptance of life, it becomes transformed. Although we still experience challenges and struggles, the world is no longer a burden in the same way as before. It becomes a gift as we become open not only to our pain, but also to our joy, love, and peace. The cross, the Tree of Death, is transformed and becomes the Tree of Life.
Obviously the symbol of the cross, like many ancient symbols, is rich in meaning. Sometimes it seems like the interpretations are inexhaustible. Instead of being blinded by only seeing it as ugly or getting trapped in narrow minded, old interpretations of the cross, I hope that we can reclaim some of its beauty as a symbol.