By any estimation, it is an odd and macabre symbol to represent faith, a device tantamount to the electric chair or the iron maiden in its cruelty and barbarity.
For those living in the world ruled by Roman Empire, the cross was a feared and very public reminder not to rebel against the power of Caesar.
Criminals against the state, traitors and revolting slaves sometimes lined the main highways into cities, quivering in agony from t-shaped slabs of wood. Intimidation of the slave class and occupied nations was the point and graphic, public humiliation and misery of those who dared to raise their fist against Rome was the reason for the device.
And it worked. Everyone feared the cross.
The death on cross was a slow, horrific affair, coming from suffocation when the victim finally lacked the strength in their pierced hands and feet to hoist themselves upright for breath.
Unlike the tall, often pictured, crosses, most were low to the ground, allowing scavenging animals to tear at the sufferers during the night.
When the death of the victim needed to be sped up, the simple solution was to break the femurs with an iron rod to hasten suffocation. The corpse of the rebel was then unceremoniously discarded in an unmarked pit.
With its twisted background and gruesome cruelty, it may seem extremely strange that it became one of the primary symbols for those who follow the “Prince of Peace.”
Ironically, it was because of its bloody cruelty that the cross became a fixture in Christian symbolism.
Here is why.
For Christians, the cross demonstrates the true state of humanity. It shows what we are capable of doing to our fellow creatures. It is a glaring example of what people with power can unblinkingly do to the innocent. But it is not a statement primarily about twisted government; to the Christian, it represents each of us individually. It shows not just what “they” can do, but what “I” can do. In fact, it shows what “I” have done.
You see, Christians believe that they personally and individually are responsible for what happened on that Friday 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was turned on by a fickle crowd, condemned by a cowardly official, tortured, humiliated, mocked and hung to die on a cross.
They believe that God stepped into the world wrapped in human flesh, throttling back his immense powers in order to offer a final sacrifice for humanity’s rebellion against God and their shameful, unloving and cruel actions toward each other. Truth be told, for my shameful, unloving and cruel actions, for my rebellion against God.
If the cross was designed for murderers, Christians know they belonged there, for they know that they have hated others and wished them dead in the hearts. If the cross was for those who actively or passively rebelled against the Power they should have obeyed, Christians know that they are guilty of that crime, often going in direct opposition to the known commands of God.
But that is not the real reason the cross became a symbol. The real reason was the one hung upon it.
It is not the cross that Christians revere but the flesh rubbed off on its rough grain and the blood that trickled down it, for they know that Jesus willingly offered himself, perfect for imperfect, Creator for created, guiltless for guilty, staining the timber with his suffering.
Christians know that it was not nails that held Jesus on the cross, it was love.
And so the cross became a big deal for believers for it represented the depths of man’s depravity and the immense love of God who “while we were yet sinners died for us, even suffering death on a cross.”
In a culture where fashion makes it into jewelry and pop icons carelessly decorate themselves with it, the real meaning of the cross is blurred and muted.
But as the day known as Good Friday comes close, Christians everywhere will once again focus on that terrible and scandalous symbol and marvel at the love that offered Himself in our place.
And that Friday is not a day for celebration, but of deep and thoughtful contemplation wrapped in shame for our own folly that made the cross necessary.
But for Christians, the cross is not the end of the story. There is a bigger part of the story to come, a story of hope, immense joy and wonder, a story where death is beaten.
But for that story you’ll have to wait … for Sunday is coming.
Rick Bundschuh is a pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Poipu.