By Steven Norris
“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.” This time of year invites Christians to reflect on the cross of Christ. It is the central symbol of our faith and has a multitude of meanings as varied as the number of lives reflecting on it.
It should have come as no surprise, then, when the Lenten cross on the corner of Hill St. and Taylor St. sparked so many questions. Our congregation decided to exchange the typical wooden crosses we regularly use for a single cross constructed from debris collected after the January 12 tornadoes.
I’ve heard a number of people say that they are bothered by it, how ugly it looks, and how they don’t like it. Those comments prompted me to reflect on how easily we forget that crucifixion in the Roman world was never meant to be pretty, inviting, or comforting. The cross was an instrument of torture.
In the ancient Roman world, crosses were often set up on the roads leading into a Roman town. When an individual was placed upon one, the message was clear: This town belongs to Caesar. If you step out of line, the same thing might happen to you as well.
The cross was intended to intimidate and to strike fear in the hearts of everyone who traveled those roads. Its primary purpose was to repel those who saw it, in order to maintain order and the Pax Romana (peace of Rome). This was state-sponsored torture and execution in the public square.
Therefore, it has always struck me as ironic that the same symbol now adorns the walls of our homes, the steeples of our churches, and is often worn as jewelry around our necks. My hunch is that an ancient Roman would be as shocked to see that as we would be to see someone wearing a pendant of a noose or a charm of an electric chair.
I will be the first to acknowledge that the sacrificial death of Jesus certainly transformed the symbol of the cross into something the Romans never intended. The words of Joseph in the ancient story of Genesis apply to Jesus as well: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (50:20). The fact remains, however, that the cross will never cease to be a monument to very worst of our human impulses and the destruction that so easily follows.
The story of Easter, then, is a story of redemption in the face of ruin, hope in the face of despair, life in the face of death. We certainly sing of the “The Old Rugged Cross,” but let us also take up a new song that gives witness of the creative hand of God among us: “You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out the dust / You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of us.”