Posted by: dacalu | 7 February 2013

Not the Cross

With special thanks to the students in PHIL 233, UA Fall 2012


A few months ago, I had a very interesting conversation at the end of a guest lecture.  We were talking about what kind of ideas were purely academic and what might be offensive.  For example, I showed a picture of a diagram relating many kinds of car bumper stickers.  Each one was a fish, but some were Jesus fish and others Darwin fish.  One was even a gefilte fish.  Some considered the diagram offensive because it made light of a religious image.  Whether the image is or is not offensive, I leave for another time.  The important thing for now is that it started a conversation.  It got us talking about what is a religious image.  What represents something holy and how should we treat things people take as holy?

This conversation made me realize that The Symbol of Christianity is not the cross.  Don’t get me wrong.  The cross is a symbol of Christianity, but I realized it is not the most important one.  The Symbol of Christianity is a human, created in the image and likeness of God.  We look to Jesus who was God incarnate, and we have many pictures of him.  Here’s the thing, though.  We do not have so many pictures of Jesus because he is God.  The Israelites were sternly warned against images of God.  That would be idolatry.  We have pictures of Jesus because he is human.  We have pictures of Jesus because he fully manifested the holiness present from the creation of the first human.  We say that in Jesus there is a new Adam, and we call him the firstborn of the new creation.

In Christianity, it is the image of God in each and every person that represents for us – symbolically, figuratively, and iconicly (not just analogously) – the central truth of Christianity.  In us, God is pleased to dwell.  Once I started looking at things this way, Christianity began to make so much more sense.  The ancient customs of the church, in this case preserved in the modern Roman liturgy lay this out clearly.  It is the priest that forms the focal point of the church (sitting in a sedia behind the altar) and not the cross.  It is the priest who represents Christ, not because of some magic property but because of the human nature of God. The Episcopal Church mostly retains this only in episcopal liturgies, where a bishop’s chair (cathedra) is places as the focal point of the church.

We (all Christians) are temples.  This is why so many Christians have been against tattoos and body art.  It’s a literal interpretation of the body as temple and the body as the image and likeness of God.  [This is also why Coptic Christians place cross tattoos on the insides of their wrists, to mark their oneness with Jesus.]

This is why the Roman Catholic sign of the church is a crucifix (a carving of Christ suffering or dead on a cross).  It’s not the instrument of torture, but the image of the man on it that is meant to impress – the divinity in humanity. I was raised with a rather different symbolism.  I was raised to see an empty cross as a better sign of Christianity because Christ is no longer crucified.  I still feel that way, but I see it in a new light.  The empty cross is a provocation.  It is not meant to capture the eye as the crucifix.  Rather, the empty cross should be a provocation.  It should force us to ask the question of where Jesus is, if he is no longer there.  It should give us hope and also give us pause.

Near the end of the Gospel of Matthew (28:5-7), an angel appears to the women in Jesus tomb and says:

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'”

Humans, all humans, are the sign of Christian faith.

This Lent I invite you to join me in meditating on this mystery.  What would it mean if we saw all human bodies, in their curious diversity, not just as holy, but as sacred objects reflecting the depth of our tradition?  How would that change the way we look at questions of torture, famine, disease, and war?

One last point.  How would it affect questions of beginning and end of life issues?  It’s easy for that to become polemical, and I don’t want to go there.  As much as I have strong opinions on abortion (against) and euthanasia (against), I respect the heartbreaking complexity of these issues. I wonder to what extent concepts of the human body as sign and sacrament affect people’s positions on these questions.

I ask you to think about how the human body serves as a symbol of humane divinity and divine humanity for yourself and others.  It’s more than a meditation for me.  It is a sudden and surprising insight into how others relate to one another and to God.  It’s an opening up of traditions in the early and medieval church that I have never understood before.




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