October 20, 2019
The Crucifix and Me
Scripture: Revelation and Matthew
Introduction: In the first passage, from the Book of Revelation, Christ is portrayed as the sacrificial Lamb who earns God’s favor. In the second passage, from Matthew, Christ bestows his favor upon Peter as the Rock, the foundation of his “church.” Both passages reflect the thinking, long after Christ’s death, by Christian communities-in-the-making which were at pains to make clear the foundational moment of the church. Both have been a bone of contention between the Roman Catholic and Protestant establishments in the struggle for theological dominance.
Religions focus on the eternal, the invisible, and the ethereal—much of it conveyed in ethereal words. Nevertheless, for all that, religion also has flesh and bones—apart from words. Religion has visible, tangible objects and accoutrements associated with its practice and worship—independent of words. Images function like a language without words.
For instance, in Judaism, we have the ark, the shofar, tefillin, and this week, maybe you’ve noticed, the Sukkot shelters outside.
In our Congregational tradition, we have font, pulpit and altar, candles, communion ware—but that’s all. I think that sums us up. On the flesh and bones spectrum, we Congregationalists are pretty skinny.
We are located right next to Quaker practice (just a bare room and hard chairs). We are at the opposite end of the flesh and bones spectrum from the Roman Catholic Church (where we see wall to wall, floor to ceiling appointments) of which we Protestants are the schismatic descendants.
Schismatic because, starting with the Reformation in 1517, Roman Catholics and Protestants tried to disown each other, violently assailing each other over myriad points of theology and ritual and practice that had been actually been in contention within the Catholic Church for many centuries. In the course of which Reformation, Protestants stripped almost all of the flesh and bones out of Christian practice (we destroyed stained glass windows, removed effigies, looted and burned monasteries), yet we retained one symbol that remains prominently visible—the cross of Christ’s execution.
Here again, though, while stripping the sanctuaries, we Protestants also stripped Jesus off the cross, the instrument of his death.
Did the Reformation accomplish its goals, or did Roman Church prevail? What do you suppose was lost and what was gained by those on either side of this battle for the cross? There ensued a battle for the cross in the 30 Years War in Europe and the bloody wars of succession in England.
Religious war only ended when the U.S. Constitution prohibited the government from establishing religion in this country.
Then, today, with the religious peace here and the increasing secularization, both cross and crucifix have become ubiquitous emblems of decoration—tattoos, pendants—conspicuously displayed outside church sanctuaries.
Cross and crucifix, what do they communicate to us, and what role does each play in our respective lives today? Are these two images the same or different, what do these two symbols mean? Or have we forgotten? If we care?
One thing they have in common, tragically, was using them as the sword with which churches not only battled each other, but with which they also tried to subdue infidels.
“In this sign, you will find victory.” These are the words Jesus is said to have spoken to Constantine, accompanied by a vision of a cross of light. The words and image together did lead to victory for the emperor, marking the moment of his conversion to Christianity and altering human civilization forever after. Crosses and civilizations are bound up with each other, meaning also that crosses and war frequently meet.
–S. Brent Plate
Most tragically, the cross and crucifix were the instrument upon which Christians crucified the Jews. For two thousand years until today, Jews were blamed for hanging Jesus on the cross, so they were persecuted, exiled, ghettoized, forced to convert, shunned, deprived of status and work, finally in mid-20th century hauled en masse by the hundreds of thousands unto 6 million in boxcars to the work camps and crematoria.
“The truth about the murder of European Jewry by baptized Christians raises in the most fundamental way the question of the credibility of Christianity. Was Jesus a false messiah? No one can be a true messiah whose followers feel compelled to torture and destroy other human persons thus—for two thousand years.” [Franklin Littell, 1975]
Although sometimes large doses of doctrine come with the cross, that may be far less damaging than the treatment by Hollywood films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, when the crucifix is violently rendered into a violently real-life simulation, hyper-emotionalizing the gospel story.
It would seem that we have only two choices—to see cross and crucifix as emblems of man’s inhumanity to man, or as God’s inhumanity to man, a poor set of choices. Actually, NO, that’s not all.
Because, and at the same time, although used as a weapon or as a meaningless decoration or homicidal self-justification, these emblems simultaneously had important, silent roles shaping the spirituality of generations of people across the globe. Independently and of their own accord, people have adopted these symbols as objects of contemplation, or devotion, or veneration which filled entire lives inside and outside the cloister (as illustrated by the Cappella Clausura concert here last night for which the all-female chorus dressed in 16th century habits to perform the antiphonal chants composed in their particular convent).
I pose the question to you this morning: if we could get free of the agendas of hegemonic Christianity and profit-seeking movie-makers, what do people make of the crucifix, actually, do you think? Or the cross? What do you make of them? Here are potent images, and they speak wordlessly to us—what are they saying to you? What would it take for us to receive the image afresh, as if for the first time, yet without forgetting the history?
I ask, because I have always tried to do this. I know very well what the different denominations have wanted me to think about the symbol of the cross—I studied this in Divinity School. I know very well what my evangelical fundamentalist relatives in California all wanted me to feel—abject gratitude for Jesus’ compliance with God’s eternal plan.
But what unprompted feelings did I experience gazing upon the crucifix, in my visits to Catholic churches, or the cross, like the one hanging prominently over the dais in Old South Church in Boston?
On the one hand, as a Vatican II “baby,” (Vatical II, 1960-65, was Catholicism’s Reformation), I am pre-disposed to Catholic sensibilities. I invited my local Catholic priest to participate in my ordination in Geneseo, Illinois, and he came. Catholic leaders were prominent in the civil rights and peace movements, which were important to me. I have always been influenced by the sacramental world-view of the Catholic faith and moved by the drama of the Mass. The Catholic church has a sympathy to anything that touches the senses—for them there is a mediating power in physical reality. They are earth-based. They use art and artifact, music, chant, tactile elements and gestures—resulting in “sensual luxury.”
On the other hand, when looking at the vacant cross, having been born and raised a Congregationalist, I know I have a degree of the squirminess probably typical of any Protestant looking at the near-naked body of a Jesus in vivid pain. And when I am looking at the Protestant cross, I see the instrument of death conquered by Christ’s resurrection.
Yet, it came to me once to see in both images a single human experience, namely, I see LOSS—the universal experience of loss, and paradoxically, loss which replenishes.
- The crucifix to me is a sign of the tragic nature of life, life that, as good as it is and can be, nevertheless must end. Every parent we say goodbye to as we accompany them on the long glide home, the friend whose premature death draws hundreds to the funeral, the news of another celebrated political leader like Rep. Elijah Cummings—this is LOSS which I see reflected in the crucifix, the loss inherent in human life. It is a lot more painful to get off this planet than to get on. These are validated in the crucifix.
- It is a sign of sin and finitude—the crucifix validates them but does not say to accept them. Oppression, lost expectations, dashed hopes, stolen lives—as societies struggle for survival and dominance, their governments unable to free themselves of the will to power which destroys so many. Perhaps the loss, or abridgement, of our constitutional democracy is such a loss. The crucifix validates them.
- The crucifix to me is also a sign of the tragic nature of the life of the Spirit, the life that Jesus led, the life that he preached, is the life that got him harassed, arrested and killed—and is inherent in the life of the Spirit, whosoever may adopt it—he was in the world but the world knew him not. It goes with any spiritual territory; it is the way of the world. The great martyrs, the lesser ones, the suffering servants, the political freedom fighters (the freedom riders), the whistle-blowers—all these are validated by the crucifix.
Why? Because the crucifix and the resurrection cross are really one, and should be seen as one. Because, the crucifixion and the resurrection are one event—they are just reported sequentially since it is in the nature of narrative to unfold things one by one.
But because the events are presented as two, and we are presented with two images, we are forced to choose between them. Because Roman Catholics and Protestants belong to two institutions, we are forced to choose between them.
A big mistake was made. They are really one, they just don’t know it.
Religions can be poisonous to each other and others, or synergistic. I say YES to the synergy—if only we could just get the two images into one and behave accordingly. Maybe you could envision such an image or create one. That would make a contribution to world peace.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman, 10/20/2019