The Meaning of The Cross

Religious symbols have power.  In John’s gospel, Jesus painted an interesting parallel between two striking images: the bronze serpent and the cross. Both were symbols of horrible death and evil. Just as the serpent symbolised Satan, the cross made the evil of the Roman empire very personal.

In ancient culture, heaven (the home of the divine) was viewed as up, the world was level, and hell (the home of evil) was below. The snake was an image of evil because it slithered on the ground (close to the home of evil). But the cross was an image people then also “looked down upon” simply because of its function: an instrument of capital punishment.

But in the eyes of faith the cross became a symbol of life, of salvation. When the Son of Man was raised up, the cross image became a sign of God’s activity.  God used evil to create a greater good.  The change in imagery set the stage for the famous John 3:16. God would send His Son into the world as an instrument of His presence. Where the divine acted, there was no condemnation, simply because evil would flee. God’s initiative, however, demanded a response: faith.

How can the image of the cross change into a sign of salvation? It was because God himself gave His Son over to the evil of men. In other words, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, his subsequent trial, passion, and death, were caused by the love of God. The cross in the hands of the Romans was a sign of extreme judgment. But, in the hands of God, it became a sign of freedom. The symbol of condemnation, indeed, became a symbol of acquittal.  The cross is a symbol of Christ in the world. It communicates faith in the One who came to free us and tells us of eternal life.  It is more than a sign that identifies us as Christians. It is a sign that evangelises.

Reflect on the meaning of the cross. How has it freed us individually? How do we represent the cross and Christianity? What meaning have you given the cross in your life?

On September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates two historical events: the discovery in 326 of what was regarded as the true Cross, under the temple of Venus in Jerusalem by Saint Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) and the dedication in 335 of the basilica and shrine built on the site.  On the day following the Exhalation of the Cross (Our Lady of Sorrows), the Church honours the Mother of Jesus and her role in the Passion. We reflect on the pain not only of her motherhood but also her place as the first witness to her Son’s self-giving.  And so, we Christians honour her for her witness both in sorrow and in joy. Does this not foreshadow our own faith journey?


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