All around the world, the cross is immediately recognizable. To the world-at-large, the cross represents a specific religion - Christianity. To Christians ourselves, it is the symbol of our salvation. Yet the first Christians would have never displayed any type of cross, nor linked it with themselves. The reality of what the cross meant - crucifixion - was too brutal, too humiliating, too awful to be associated with.
To a large extent, the horrendous nature of the cross and crucifixion has largely been lost to us today. While we should of course try to remember and respect the enormous physical suffering of Jesus, it is not necessarily the primary aspect to focus on. As Fr. Ron Rolheiser* so eloquently expresses, it is not the external suffering that we should be most concerned with. He writes:
All four Gospels take pains not to focus on the physical sufferings of Jesus. Their descriptions of his physical sufferings are stunningly brief: "They crucified him with the two criminals." "Pilate had Jesus scourged and handed him over to be crucified." Why the brevity here? Why no detailed description?
The reason that the Evangelists don't focus us on what Jesus was enduring physically is that they want us to focus something else, namely, on what Jesus was enduring emotionally and morally. The passion of Jesus is, in its real depth, a moral drama, not a physical one, the suffering of a lover, not that of an athlete.
Thus we see that, when Jesus is anticipating his passion, the anxiety he expresses is not about the whips that will beat him or the nails that will pierce his hands. He is pained and anxious rather about the aloneness he is facing, how he will be betrayed and abandoned by those who profess to love him, and how he will, in the wonderful phraseology of Gil Bailie, be "unanimity-minus-one".
When Jesus is sweating blood in the Garden and begging his Father to spare him having to "drink the cup", the real choice he is facing is not: Will I let myself die or will I invoke divine power and save my life? Rather the choice was: "How will die? Will I die angry, bitter, and unforgiving, or will I die with a warm, forgiving heart?"
Of course, we know how Jesus resolved this drama, how he chose forgiveness and died forgiving his executioners, and how, inside all that darkness, he remained solidly inside the message that he had preached his whole ministry, namely, that ultimately love, community, and forgiveness triumph.
Moreover, what Jesus did in that great moral drama is something we're supposed to imitate rather than simply admire because that drama is also ultimately the drama of love within our own lives, presenting itself to us in countless ways.
So how do we imitate, not just admire, the great drama of Jesus' crucifixion? By living out the two great commandments found in Matthew 22:
1.You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart,
and with your whole soul,
and with all your mind.
2.This is the greatest and the first commandment.
And the second is like it:
you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
And the cross itself shows us how both of these commandments are united, in it's very form. The vertical plank of wood represents the first command. It reaches into the heavens, the home of God, through prayer and supplication, and connects this realm to the world at the other end. It represents the spiritual, the intellectual, the abstract, the unseen. But the horizontal arm is the opposite. It represents the concrete, the physical, the touchable, the visible. The hands of Christ rested on either side of this piece of wood and remind us of the corporal works of mercy. It's not enough just to talk to talk, you also have to walk the walk. Your hands must be the hands of Christ that touch, help and heal others around you, down here on the horizontal plane.
Interestingly, both planks of wood meet exactly at the spot where the heart of Christ must have lain. From his heart, water and blood flowed, the living water and the new life. This section of the website is dedicated to exploring the specific artistic representations of crosses, which each further nuance the saving action of Christ.
*Fr. Ron writes a weekly meditation that is carried in roughly 60 newspapers all over the world. He is the author of such well-known books as The Holy Longing and Sacred Fire. To read his entire column of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, click here:
http://ronrolheiser.com/the-garden-of-gethsemane/#.U0w1zlx-_pA Or visit his website here:www.ronrolheiser.com