I’ll never forget one earthquake, the main earthquake that shook up my life. One night when I was ten, a few weeks before Christmas, my parents woke me and my brother and told us that my baby sister had died in their arms. My strong, wise, invincible parents couldn’t stop crying and the world was suddenly filled with danger, injustice and cruelty.
Earthquakes are like that. They turn our worlds upside down. A doctor sends you for more tests, a police officer knocks on the door, the phone rings in the middle of the night.
Earthquakes leave us paralyzed with fear, unable to move. They destroy our innocence, our assumptions and beliefs about the world we live in.
The cross is an earthquake, an ugly tool of shame and cruelty. In the Roman Empire, it was used never used on citizens and the wealthy, only on slaves and traitors. It could take days to die. In some cultures, if you could survive for three days, you would be granted your freedom. When the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem some forty years after Jesus’ death, they recorded crucifying hundreds of Jewish rebels as a warning to others – conform, obey or else! this practise continues today – it’s cheap, easy and a public way to send a message of fear to the people that are targeted for intimidation.
We turn the cross into a piece of pretty jewelry, trying to sentimentalize it. We pretty it up, cover it up, tattoo it, ignore it, and even say that it does not deserve a place in our churches. It’s old-fashioned and barbaric. We know at some level, it is a symbol that we should be squeamish about. It is an earthquake that changes the way we look at life. It is stark and bare and rough.
It sits on the earth and reaches for the sky, a reminder of our human yearning for better things. It is a symbol of justice run amok and state control that needs to be constantly checked. It inspires the social justice movement to speak truth to power. So, for some, the cross is a visual reminder to keep political.
For others, the cross has wide arms that reach out to embrace the world. Jesus died for me, a sinner, and I am unworthy. Jesus suffered so that I will not, Jesus was punished so I will be pardoned. And so, the arms of the cross embrace me.
For others, the cross is two pieces of wood with nails in it. It is something they can see and touch, but that is all it is. There is no magic to it. It is a symbol of religion gone mad – what kind of loving father God would torture his son to death? God is an abusive, insensitive parent not worth believing in.
For some it is the ultimate exploitation of an innocent victim, the innocent lamb. I have difficulty with that one. Jesus deliberately went out of his way to insult and challenge the religious leaders of the day. He knocked over the tables in the temple, he took a bullwhip to temple workers, he ridiculed the Pharisees and scribes for their beliefs, he showed them up in public, and he rode a donkey into town as a piece of political satire that would be worthy of Rick Mercer or Stephen Colbert. Hardly lamblike behavior. He provoked the authorities and they responded. His own disciples, according to all the gospels, were worried and asked him to either tone it down, not talk about dying in Jerusalem, or even avoid the town altogether. Jesus saw the cross as a challenge that he would not avoid.
Paul said it best, the cross is foolish to the logical philosophers and a stumbling block to religious hierarchies.
Unless it is intended to be an earthquake that turns everything upside down, that says, ‘stop looking for easy answers.’ not either or, but both and. That says, look at the intersections, not the extremes.
Is it about the individual? Yes. Is it about the political? Yes. Is it about personal salvation? Yes. Is it about challenging societal norms? You betcha. Does it encourage us to think? Definitely. Is it wanting us to empathize? Of course! Is it wanting to give us easy answers? No, because there is no end in our understanding of this day.
The empty cross points to a new way of looking at ourselves and our neighbors. It is a new way of looking at Jesus and even at God. It invites us to look both outward at our world and inward at our souls. It transforms the way we look at Jesus.
If this big old, ugly, bloodthirsty, cruel, embarrassing cross couldn’t stop Jesus, if it couldn’t shut up the Marys, if it renergized Peter the liar, the disciples who abandoned Jesus, the Pharisees like Nicodemus who loved him, the persecutors like Paul, the countless martyrs and saints who took the cross and Jesus seriously, and encouraged modern saints like Martin Luther King and Canadians like Douglas John Hall or Paul Walfell or Stan McKay or Lois Wilson to act boldly, why should it stop us?
Why should it not inspire us to remember the earthquake message, ‘Don’t be afraid’. Let this cross be an earthquake moment that transforms us into bold witnesses like Peter and Paul. Let us proclaim Jesus risen, triumphant and glorified beyond fear and oppression. Let us be filled with courage and hope, for this is what the Cross stands for, the mystery at the heart of our gospels and our traditions. Halleluiah!