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The Cross: Love’s Harsh and Dreadful Beauty

September 14, 2021


Imagine if a logo designer was commissioned to come up with a new symbol for Christianity other than the cross. It’s highly likely that in order to make our religion attractive and appealing, the new logo would be smart, unique, and would speak to the benefits of our faith for those who would consider it. From a worldly perspective, Christianity’s symbol of the cross is too brutal, too dated. If the primary logo of our religion is an instrument of torture, few will be attracted to it—or so it seems.

Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, previously known as the “Triumph of the Cross.” The purpose of this feast suggests that rather than being embarrassed by the cross or daring to suggest an alternative logo, we should do the exact opposite. It encourages us to celebrate the sign of the cross as a symbol of victory over everything wrong in our world. It is necessarily held up before us as a reminder of the extent of God’s love—a love willing to suffer in order to rescue us from our dysfunction.

It is worth noting that the first Christians hesitated to use the symbol of the cross as the logo for their new religion, and for good reason too. For people in Roman-occupied territories, the predominant meaning of the cross was terror and dread, for it was the instrument of “unsurpassable punishment,” in the words of Cicero. The cross was a symbol of Roman power and domination that sent out a chilling warning to all who would dare oppose itthis would be their fate should they rebel.

By the early third century, as the Church began to reflect on her message and mission, the tide began to turn in a dramatic way as the sign of the cross began to appear more frequently. Rather than the cross being a symbol of ultimate fear and defeat, it came to symbolize the ultimate triumph of Christ; it mocked the human power that tried to destroy him. Not even torture and death could silence him or neutralize his divine power. All this was possible because of Christ’s death on the cross and his Resurrection. So, rather than a sign of defeat, the cross became a symbol of freedom and the victory of Christ that Christians honor. In the early third century, such was the extent of the appearance of the cross among Christians that St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) referred to the cross as “the Lord’s sign.” His contemporary Tertullian (c. 155-220) rejected accusations of Christians being “adorers of the cross” as if the symbol itself was greater than the truth it pointed to—namely, the victory of Christ’s love over suffering and death.

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “From being a sign of malediction, the Cross was transformed into a sign of blessing, from a symbol of death into a symbol par excellence of the love that overcomes hatred and violence and generates immortal life.”

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross draws our eyes and hearts to the mystery of Calvary, where the cross is lifted up as both a mirror and a window. First, the Lord’s cross is a mirror; it holds up before us the sin that is in us all and the dysfunction that needs healing. A precedent is found in the first reading for today’s Mass, Numbers 21:4-9, where Moses prescribed a healing remedy for the Israelites who were bitten by fiery serpents. To recover their health, he instructed them to gaze on a bronze serpent fixed to a standard and raised on high. This ritual seems odd to say the least, but its healing power centers around the need to look our own rebellion straight in the eye. Somehow, in that reality check, the outward sign functions as a mirror in which we can see the ugliness that we must acknowledge as a first step to healing. We find something similar with the prophet Isaiah in the first reading on Good Friday. There, it speaks of a man brutalized by torture being “lifted up, exalted, rising to great heights” (Isa. 52:13). Before such a sight, we are told that “kings stand speechless before him” (52:15). And before his cross, we too fall on our knees praying “Lord Jesus Christ, be merciful to me, a sinner” as we see our need for his mercy and healing.

In the Gospels, Jesus is revealed as the one lifted up before the world, not only as a mirror but as a window into the depths of God’s saving love: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). The horror of the cross externalizes the horror of sin, but it also reveals the love that swallows it up. That is why Jesus linked his lifting-up on the cross to his mission of love, sent by the Father: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish” (John 3:16). With the cross as a window, we catch a glimpse of the extent to which divine love was prepared to go in order to seek out and reach those who were lost. Jesus’ love was even greater than his unimaginable suffering. In the words of St. Anthony of Padua: “Christ your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror. . . . Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the cross can a person better understand how much they are worth.”

For many of the saints, hours of prayerfully contemplating the cross gave birth to beautiful insights into divine beauty. St. Bonaventure says that for St. Francis, it was Jesus fastened on the cross that melted his soul so that “whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs.” This was the prelude to his weeping for love of the poor and his desire to serve them.

For Bl. Jordan of Saxony, the contemplation of Christ’s death on the cross was akin to reading a love story: “You find it written with a strange beauty when you gaze at Jesus your Savior stretched out like a sheet of parchment on the cross inscribed with wounds, illustrated with his own loving blood. Where else I ask you, is there a comparable book of love to read from? So, fix your mind’s attention there . . . turn this book over, open it, read it.”

The cross is not just a symbol but a story. No other logo or symbol can ever replace it as the sign of Christianity. Today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross directs us to contemplate the way Jesus died and why he did. In the cross as in a mirror, we see our own need for salvation and the ugliness of our own sin. In the cross as a window, we see the truth of Dostoevsky’s words that love is indeed a “harsh and dreadful thing.” Yet this was the greatest love the world has ever known that overcame every darkness and evil that afflicts humanity and whose power is still active and triumphant in the lives of Christians. Here lies the real meaning of today’s feast as a sign of hope.