Several years ago one of my university faculty colleagues was looking through his mail. He had just received a catalogue featuring religious jewelry. As he flipped through the catalogue, he started making fun of all the different kinds of crosses, asking me, “Hey, Mike—would you like a sterling silver cross, a gold-plated one, or maybe one made of pearl?” Then he said something so profound that I wrote it down. He said, “You know, it’s easier to wear a cross than to bear a cross.” Maybe part of our problem with crosses is that they seem more like shiny jewelry than the object of scandal that they were during the first century. In an age when we are addicted to comfort, we need to reclaim the scandal of the cross. The cross was a symbol of torture and death, not a piece of jewelry. Jesus’s call to “take up our cross” was a call to sacrifice and suffering, not a call to comfort. Even so, I struggle with this, for like so many, I find myself insulated from much of the world’s pain and suffering.
If we can reconnect with the original meaning of the cross, we might be able to reconnect with suffering as a normal part of following Jesus. The cross is a religious symbol now, but in the first century it was only a scandal—a way of executing the worst criminals. To reclaim the shock value of the cross, one author recommended using other words for capital punishment (for example, hangman’s noose, firing squad, or electric chair) as a replacement for the word cross in some of our favorite hymns, such as The Old Rugged Cross or When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. We have become too comfortable with the cross.
A Roman crucifixion was not a pretty picture. The Romans created a death that was as cruel, degrading, and painful as possible, as described in detail by Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion. First the victim was stripped naked and scourged—a brutal beating during which men often died. But part of the suffering of the cross was humiliation. The victim was nailed to the crossbeam and lifted up for public display. As the hours passed, the body suffered from blood loss, exposure, and traumatic shock. Savage thirst and pain racked the victim, his or her body weight thrown forward against the pectoral muscles, making breathing increasingly difficult. Finally, when exhaustion made the effort of breathing impossible, the crucified person suffocated. Roman statesmen Cicero called crucifixion “the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful, and ugly.” Such a hideous death was reserved for the worst of slaves and foreigners—not for Roman citizens. Jesus’s first disciples had a problem accepting the scandal of the cross—and especially that their leader would die in such a cruel way. A.W. Tozer argued that we still like to avoid the scandal of the cross today:
The cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament upon the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity. The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it.
REFLECTIONS: Do you own any cross jewelry? How can you wear it or use it in a way that reminds you of the scandal of the cross? Is there a Scripture about the cross you can memorize that will help you retain its original meaning?
But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23–24