I remember attending a Christian education conference at which one of the speakers, instead of wearing a cross around his neck, wore an eight-inch replica of a wooden gallows complete with a rope noose. As he explained to us at the beginning of his talk, he did this to remind us that the cross was a form of execution used by the Roman government as a symbol and instrument of the ultimate punishment and curse that could be inflicted upon a person living in the time of Jesus, just as gallows would have been an equally shameful and degrading public display of justice to an upstanding settler in the old West or, even more horribly, as an expression of mob hatred and violence to a law-abiding emancipated slave in the Deep South during Post-Civil War Reconstruction, or as I discovered last week, to a despised German-American living in a suburb of St. Louis, stripped naked, paraded down main street and lynched by his neighbors during World War One. I could generate the same visceral response by wearing a cylinder of chlorine and sarin gas as a barbaric reminder of what a desperate contemporary Syrian tyrant is capable of doing to 87 men, women and children.
As you may know, I returned last week from a brief visit to my brother, who lives an hour south of Paris, France, a trip intended, in part, to be a Lenten pilgrimage. Among the highlights of my journey were three iconic symbols of France: the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower.
Notre Dame houses a museum that includes a crown of thorns that Jesus may very well have worn on the day of his crucifixion, as well as nails that were driven through the hands and feet of those who were crucified. They even claim to treasure a piece of the original cross. Each of these relics is a concrete, visible reminder of the shame and agony that Jesus willingly suffered on our behalf, as the rebels, traitors, collaborators and deserters that we are, not against Rome or any other earthly power, but against God himself, a day we now understand by faith to be the decisive act of divine love that exposed the final impotency of our sin and of death itself. Those of us who now dare to wear a cross do so, both in recognition of our complicity in Jesus’ death and in our faith that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died as the Son of God out of his love for us, a love that overcomes the very sin that demands and cries out for his death.
Though I have seen it a hundred times before in photographs, on television and in the movies, I never knew that the Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories, or that the Germans several generations later marched around it when they occupied France in 1940, or that four bloody years later, the French and their Allies marched around it to celebrate their subsequent expulsion and triumph over the horrors of Nazi Germany. I also learned that this Arch was modeled on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrated the triumph of Titus, a Roman general and subsequent emperor, who crushed a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, where millions died of starvation as a result of his siege of the city, whose walls were finally breached, leveled and burned down along with the Temple, slaughtering everyone who remained, just as Jesus had predicted Rome would do some forty years earlier before his own violent death.
For us, the cross of Christ is God’s decisive victory over sin and death. And the Church – you and I – we are now God’s Arc de Triomphe, his Arch of Triumph, with Jesus, the stone that was rejected by the movers and shakers of this world, now the very cornerstone who supports and holds us all together.
A third symbol of France that I visited was the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair to be the tallest building in the world, to commemorate the centennial of the French revolution, of liberty, equality and brotherhood, a structure whose elegant curves rise exponentially to the heavens and with such natural strength that they can withstand the force of any winds that might blow against it. We Christians believe that God transformed the cross from the cruelest form of execution devised by humans into the means of drawing all the world to himself, represented by a horizontal beam extending and embracing all people and united with God in a vertical beam stretching between earth and heaven, a design that can and has and will continue to withstand any and all efforts by the forces of evil to prevail against it.
As that Christian speaker reminded me many years ago, there are a variety of ways to execute the worst of offenders: the gallows, a firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, burning at the stake, or the guillotine, some intended to be more merciful than others. But today, we acknowledge that the cross, the cruelest of all, is also, in the case of Jesus, the most life-giving of all, the symbol not of ruthless justice but of infinite mercy for those who are cut to the quick by such an incomprehensible act of humility and love by God himself. For those of us who choose to wear a cross, or to bow before one, may we do so as a reminder of our pledge to follow the example of Christ by bearing our own cross as a living sacrifice for the life of others and for the sake of him whose death has destroyed death and opened for us this unexpected pathway to larger life. AMEN.