In 1979, the contemporary sanctuary of St. John United Methodist Church* was dedicated. As part of the preparation for that dedication day, two members** of the church designed a large cross and suspended it from the ceiling of the church. To their amazement, the lighting in the church produced two shadows one on each side of the cross, making it symbolic of the cross at Calvary. This captured the imagination of church members so much that the cross has never been taken down and remains in place today.
Needless to say, when one visits my home church, the cross is central to the worship service, you might say it is “front and center.”
But for Christians, the centrality of the cross is not that unusual.
John Stott begins his book The Cross of Christ with some explication of how the cross is prevalent in Christian art, architecture and every aspect of Christian worship. His example of art is the painting by Holman Hunt entitled The Shadow of Death. His example of architecture is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His explanation of the centrality of the cross in worship is expressed from the viewpoint of a “stranger” who is visiting a worship service at St. Paul’s.
As I read his discussion of worship at St. Paul’s, it made me consider the symbol of the cross in my church and I have to admit, it shows up everywhere, from bulletins to crosses around members necks. From the antependium [that cloth that is draped over the pulpit] to the lapels on parishioners’ jackets. We have so much beautiful stained glass at St. John UMC and it is full of crosses.
Maybe it is in so many places that we take the cross for granted. It was not always so.
Stott explains that early Christians did not even use the symbol of the cross to signify their faith. First of all, they were afraid to use it because of its close association with the death of Jesus. Persecution was so common that there was fear that its use would make it easier to identify Christian worshippers, and therefore allow Romans and Jews to find them and to exact punishment. Despite the fact that Christ died on the cross, in the First Century, crucifixion was regarded as a shameful way to die, a punishment reserved for common criminals. When a person was convicted of murder, rebellion or armed robbery in the Roman world, they met their end on the cross. This method of punishment was barbaric [literally]; the Romans began the practice after discovering its use by peoples at the edge of the known world. Crucifixion was an extremely slow death and most often criminals suffered additional torture while hanging on the cross. The use of a cross as a positive symbol in those times would have been unusual.
Roman citizens in the First Century were exempt from crucifixion, except in extreme cases of treason. Stott writes that Romans regarded crucifixion “with horror”.
Jews in the First Century also regarded crucifixion as a disgusting way to die. They cited scripture from Deuteronomy which says “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” [Deut 21: 23]. One reason that they could never accept Jesus as The Messiah is that they believed He died under God’s curse because He was crucified on a tree. Their experience with crucifixion was often at the hands of vengeful Roman generals. The Roman general Varus crucified two thousand Jews in 4 B.C. and general Titus crucified so many Jews that they ran out of space on the main road and they ran out of trees to make crosses. They hated the symbol of the cross.
Today’s Christian might think the symbol of the cross has been around since earliest days of Christianity, but that is just not the case. Early Christian symbols that were accepted were drawings of a peacock [meaning immortality], the dove, the athlete’s victory palm or the fish.
In the second century, Christians began to depict significant themes of redemption in their art. Noah’s ark gained popularity as well as Abraham killing the ram instead of Isaac, Daniel in the lion’s den, his three friends in the fiery furnace and Jonah being disgorged from the belly of the whale. These symbolic paintings were less incriminating than the cross and only those instructed with the Christian interpretation of the art would understand their significance for the faith.
Christian symbols for Jesus could have been the crib, the manger, or a carpenter’s bench. Other choices could have been a boat, where Jesus taught the crowds at Galilee or the apron He wore to wash the disciples’ feet. The throne could have symbolized the sovereignty of Jesus or even the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the two bars of the cross eventually became the preeminent Christ symbol because they commemorate Jesus’ death.
In the second century Christians began to draw, paint and engrave the cross as a symbol of their faith and they also began to make the sign of the cross on themselves. Tertullian recorded the practice of Christians “signing” the cross in his writings in A.D. 200. Hippolytus, the Roman historian writes of signing the cross as a common ritual in A.D. 215. He also comments on a Christian bishop who made the sign of the cross on the forehead of candidates for confirmation.
In the sixth century, the crucifix began to be commonly used by Christians. This symbol of the cross with Jesus attached was an obvious reference to His sacrifice for us and it solidified the cross as Christianity’s central symbol.
Of course, there have been periods in Christian history where the cross has been attacked. Puritans in England in the Sixteenth Century felt that the cross was a sign of Roman Catholic “popery” and discouraged its use.
But today Stott writes “the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity.”
I have joined the choir at St. John and the choir sits right under the large cross at the front of the sanctuary. As I look up from the choir loft, I realize that I am only fifteen or twenty feet away from this large symbol. We don’t sing the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts too often but if we would sing it and if we would all gaze upon the cross, the meaning for any Christian is only too obvious.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
The cross of Christ—the universal symbol of our faith.
*St. John United Methodist Church, Hopkinsville, Kentucky. **Cecil Hammonds and Arch Hitch