When we come into church on Easter morning, it is a time of celebration. The colors have changed from the solemn purple of Lent to a glorious panoply of gold and white. The plain wood furnishings around the altar have been replaced with shining silver and brass. The music is triumphant, with multiple choruses of Alleluia throughout the service. The sanctuary is bursting with beautiful white lilies, symbols of resurrection and new life. Everything has changed. Exuberant new life is overflowing all around us.
One of the subtler changes that happens during Lent is that our beautiful cross is draped with netting, a purple fabric during the first several weeks, then red for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, and finally black on Good Friday. Some time between the Holy Saturday service and the Easter Vigil, the black drapery is removed, and the cross is once more on full display. It struck me the other day that when you think of the religious symbols that surround Holy Week and Easter, the Cross is always associated with the Crucifixion, while the symbol of the Resurrection is usually the Empty Tomb. The Empty Tomb, of course, is the setting for the Gospel story we hear today, and it has a wonderfully mysterious quality to it, like trying to prove a negative—the disciples have various reactions to it, and attach many different meanings to it. In fact, each Gospel gives a slightly different account of how the followers of Jesus went from finding the tomb empty to truly believing that he had been resurrected from the dead and was now living in eternal life.
Christians regularly proclaim that we are a Resurrection people, an Easter people, a people who believe that eternal life triumphs over death and that God is continually making all things new. How strange then, that we chose the Cross as our symbol, so much so that there has never been and almost certainly will never be a more recognizable emblem of our faith throughout the centuries and around the world. As many others have pointed out, during the early days of the church, crucifixion was still a regular form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire, so choosing to display a cross was very like choosing to display an electric chair or a firing squad. It can be hard to wrap our heads around the seeming contradiction between being a people defined by Resurrection and simultaneously having as our emblem an instrument of torture and death.
This Easter, I hope we will not shy away from this complication, the paradox that we might even call the mystery of the Cross. It is also important for us to be humble enough to recognize that some people have good reason to be wary of the Cross, and the ways it has been coopted by those seeking worldly power and control, not to mention those operating out of prejudice rather than true faith. This came to me quite forcefully the summer I served as a hospital chaplain. I was not yet ordained so I did not wear a clergy collar or any kind of uniform; unlike the rest of the hospital staff, I did not have scrubs or a white coat to help people understand my role there. However, I did wear a tiny cross on a chain around my neck—I mean really tiny and delicate, smaller than a dime. I wore it as a source of comfort and encouragement, something to give me strength during difficult times and to help keep me from focusing too much on myself.
One day I went in to meet with a patient for the first time. She was a woman just a little younger than I am, a woman who was most likely going to die before that summer was out. When I sat down by her bed, her eyes immediately landed on that tiny gold cross, and a look of suspicion passed over her face. She told me, very politely, that she wasn’t a believer, that she had had some really bad experiences with Christians, and that she wasn’t sure she wanted to talk to a chaplain. I responded in all honesty that that made perfect sense to me; I’d had some pretty awful experiences with Christians myself! I told her too that I was sorry about the way some people use our religion to shame or belittle or judge . She said, “Well, you’re here now. You might as well stay.” We talked for nearly an hour that day, and she invited me to come back.
Soon I was seeing her almost every day. I even got to know her family, who visited her frequently and who were grief-stricken about the brutal progress of her disease. To this day, I am so glad that she was a generous and big-hearted enough person to overcome her initial, and very understandable, hesitation. I’m grateful for her courage in speaking so honestly to me about her doubts and suspicions, which was a gift in so many ways, including that it gave me a new appreciation for how complex a symbol the Cross can be.
Through the power of authentic human relationship, the Cross went from being a stumbling block to being a doorway into deep honesty, forgiveness, and human connection. When it comes right down to it, though, it doesn’t really matter whether I wear a cross or not. During the sacrament of baptism, I was marked as Christ’s own forever, and no power on earth can change that. Accepting with grace and humility all the feelings and associations that people want to draw between myself and the Cross, whether they seem fair or not, feels like the least I can do as a follower of Jesus, who so willingly gave everything for me and for all of us.
So this is why we don’t turn away from the cross at Easter, leaving it behind for a season with the other trappings of Lent. For us as Christians, our story can never be complete without it. Easter is not some mass delusion, where we all decide to pretend for one day that bad things don’t exist and that because Jesus rose from the dead nobody else will ever have to die again and nothing bad will ever happen to us. That isn’t faith—that’s a fairy tale. Instead, embracing the cross at Easter and throughout the year reminds us that, as real as suffering and death are, they are not the end of the story. They are not all there is. They will not have the final say.
In his excellent book The Sign and the Symbol, Rowan Williams remind us of the many ways the cross has been imagined in Christian art and symbolism, ways that we too often ignore today. Our own cross here at Good Shepherd is a wonderful example of a Christus Rex, showing Christ as a risen king, who finds his new home on the cross very much as if it were a throne of God in our midst, which in fact it is. Notice that his hands are not nailed to the cross, as they would be in a Crucifix, but are free and unshackled, relaxed and welcoming. The Cross is also a symbol of victory, a bridge between earth and heaven, an instrument of liberation, tearing down all the walls that separate us from one another, flooding the world with God’s own healing and delight. The Cross is a banner, leading us into battle against the forces of evil. The Cross is a sign of triumph and a symbol of protection.
The great paradox of our faith is that we find the greatest light and liberation while standing under the shadow of the Cross. This means we do not need to deny our own woundedness, our own weakness, and our own limitations, as if acknowledging them makes us bad Christians. Rather we can continue to live with them, we can work hard to transform the rampaging evil and unnecessary suffering that are still at large in the world, AND we can continue to look forward to the day when God finally guides our feet into the way of peace and we inherit at last the kingdom that God has prepared for us. As Bishop N.T. Wright, “Jesus was executed on the Cross, but Jesus didn’t stay dead. Jesus beat death and rose again, beyond death’s reach. That makes the Cross, not a sign of death, but a sign of the end of death, a sign of hope and sign of possibility.” To that I can only add: Alleluia and amen!