Why is the cross the primary symbol of Christianity? One sees it on church steeples, on necklace pendants, on Bible covers, bumper stickers (including those "coexist" stickers that also include the Star of David, the Muslim Crescent and the yin-yang symbol), graves and tattoos.
But why not the empty tomb, or, say, the manger? Do they not have a bit more of an upbeat connotation?
And it's hardly recent. Iconography from the faith's earliest days puts the cross front and center.
It's clearly an insistence that something be acknowledged. What is it?
Something interesting about the way this ubiquitious symbol is displayed, and has been over the centuries, is that it's either presented as flamboyantly decorative, with curly-cues adorning its edges, or so simple - two perpendicular lines, basically - as to be starkly abstract. It's almost as if the faith is saying that the graphic details are best left to the observer's private thoughts and imaginings.
I guess that's understandable. Say you wrote a novel about some grisly crime that took place in a particular room. Would you not want your publisher's graphics people to put something rather subtle on the book cover, say, an open door, with a beam of dim light projecting out? Your target market might recoil from your work if you got too literal, or mistake what you're offering for some kind of low-brow sensationalism.
Maybe this goes a ways toward explaining why Good Friday is not the big deal on most Christians' - or Westerners' generally - calendar that Easter, or certainly Christmas, is. The most devout try to find time on that day to make it to a service somewhere, but nobody stays home from work, or gathers family for some kind of meal.
But there it is, up on that hill, with the last vestiges of daylight fading behind it, the murmur of weeping Jewish women and astonished Roman soldiers fading with it.
Step right up to it, so you can see the blood. There's lots of it.
At some point, anyone who begins a serious inquiry into just what this Christian-faith thing is has to ponder deeply what happened in the twenty or so hours between the kiss on the cheek from Judas in the Garden of Gesthemane and the scene depicted above.
What happened to that guy - our Lord, the son of the author of all that has ever existed, and is ever going to exist, anywhere in this infinite universe - was abuse of a degree of viciousness and savagery to which very few human beings have ever been subjected. The scourgings went on and on, and the Romans who administered them used the most diabolical of instruments, The spikes dug deep, tearing muscle tissue and causing massive blood loss. He was shoved, kicked, hit and spit upon, taunted. Mocked with the title - "King of the Jews" - that codified the way in which he was most misunderstood, as the anticipated political leader of a liberation movement.
Throughout the entire time, various people came up to him - including the man most responsible for his fate, Pontius Pilate - and said, in so many words, "Why are you putting yourself through this? Tell the authorities what they want to hear, and you can put a stop to this."
We all should conjure as vividly as possible this week an image of the facial expression with which He gazed at such people in response. Consider that he was weaving in and out of consciousness and lucidity, a chunk of barely recognizable shredded human tissue drenched in his own blood. But surely when directly asked why he didn't choose to end the Hell, he'd engage their eyes directly and convey something with timeless implications, implications for your soul and mine: I have to do this.
And conjure an image of the cross being raised to its full height, in the hot sun. The impact of gravity on the points - hands and feet - at which the body of Jesus of Nazareth was fastened to the wood would bring him to the moment of maximum anguish.
And consider the full depth and mystery of the things he uttered once up there:
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
"Into thine hands I commend my spirit."
"It is finished."
Over the past several decades, Western culture has become enamored of the quest for direct spiritual experience, and has come to value that more than truth revealed in scripture. Some of it is surely due to the instant-gratification value of a mystical experience. As with everything else, we want the full measure and we want it now. We want something cosmic and mind-blowing.
What fits that bill better than what happened on that cross? The utterances listed above, the suddenly darkening sky, the rending of the temple curtain?
The removal of the seam between the profane and the sacred, the reuniting of the mundane and the divine. Creation reconciled with creator.
How's that for cosmic?
But where does the individual human being fit into this?
As I've said before, my last sticking point before fully committing myself to a faith journey was that it looked like a rigged game, that the exercise of this great gift from God, our free will, would inevitably result in sin, and that the only way to avoid the eternal outer darkness resulting from that sin was to make some sort of confession, made a mockery of that free will.
But if you'll permit yourself to really let in the details of that Friday afternoon on that hill, you'll see that it's not just "some sort of confession." Nobody would go through what that guy did, particularly after a ministry filled with parables of lost sheep and prodigal sons, and exhortations to repentance, without desiring something infinitely precious.
He had you on his mind that awful day. Your name, your face, your soul.
You may not even have an inkling you were lost until you really let in what he went through.
He wants you and me with Him in eternity.
Let's make this week truly holy. There is much on humanity's plate, but that is always the case, is it not? For this week, let us put the moment, two thousand-plus years ago, when time and eternity were wedded, and Christ invited us to see Him in paradise, front and center in our minds.
Let's accept being cleansed.