Thoughts on Good Friday – Why a cross?

Crosses and crucifixes have become part of fashion, with all kinds of people wearing them and using them, even many who do not follow Jesus.  For example, Madonna has often used crosses and crucifixes both in her wardrobe and as images in her stage show.  With the imagery so prevalent, it is not hard to become innoculated to the idea of the cross.  It is actually amazing that early Christians chose the cross as the image of their new faith.

Crucifixion was actually a fairly common event in the ancient Roman empire.  As a form of execution, it was invented by the Persions around 500 BC, but the Romans perfected it, using it as a symbol of shame and a huge deterrent.  There are instances where several hundred people are crucified at a time, lining streets in Rome or somewhere in the empire.  Crucifixions were public executions, for all to see.  As people walked by, there were usually two responses.  First, the thought would pop up, “Whatever that person did, no way I am doing it.”  The other response was scorn and ridicule, as the onlookers would mock and shout obcenities to the suffering person.   Add to this the incredible suffering of the victim, and needless to say, death on a cross was about the worst thing that could happen.  It is the most horrible way invented to cause the death of another.  Those being killed would hang there, naked, totally unable to do anything, suffering from massive pain and muscle spasms, as their lungs filled with fluid causing suffocation.  The only way to get a breath was to push up on the nails in the person’s feet so that the lungs could expand and get some air.  It was a terrible way to die, and those who suffered this were deeply shamed in the culture.  In Jewish culture, they even had a verse that added to the shame, pronouncing that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.  Using the cross as the symbol of Christianity brought resentment and ridicule.  One ancient example can be found in a cartoonish drawing found that was inscribed about thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In the image, a man is praying with one hand lifted toward a cross with a person on it.  But the person has the head of a jackass, and the inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

So why would the early Christians use an image that was so scorned by Romans and Jews alike?  Why not make the fish symbol the primary image?  Or how about a big rock and an empty tomb (a little harder to put on a necklace, mind you)?  While both of these are good and important images picturing the ministry of Jesus, Christians throughout history have understood that the cross is the central event in all history, and the core of the Christian faith.  Followers of Jesus understand that God came himself to suffer and die for us on Good Friday.  The cross is the image because the love of God for us and the justice of God toward us kissed on Good Friday.  The cross is the key picture of the Christian faith due to the fact that our forgiveness, salvation, and hope was secured completely by the events on Good Friday.

So, while some may be complacent when wearing a cross, and others still use it as a way to shame those who follow Jesus, we still have as the central focus of our faith the cross of Jesus Christ.  The love of the cross of Christ is summed up well in the hymn The Old Rugged Cross by George Bennard

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

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