More than a fashion statement - what the cross teaches us about true power

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, year A

Imagine that you were transported in time several hundred years in the future. Of all the new and strange things that you see, one stands out. Many people are wearing a gold chain around their neck. Hanging from  this chain is the image of an electric chair. Attached to the walls in people’s homes and public places you also see the symbol of the electric chair. This futuristic people even has a special feast they celebrate each year called the Exaltation of the Electric Chair. Sounds very strange doesn't it, like something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone? We need to remind ourselves that if early Christians were transported in time to the year 2014, they would have a similar reaction to the way that we display and view the image of the cross and the crucifix.

For people at the time of Jesus, the cross was a terrible, violent and hateful symbol. It was a tortuous form of public execution used by the Roman Empire to control and subjugate. When people were crucified, they were stripped of their clothes and nailed or lashed to a cross which was placed in a very public area. Over the next two or three days the individual would die a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation, all in front of a mocking crowd. For the first three hundred years of Christianity, the cross or the crucifix was never depicted in art. It was by no means the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity that it is today. There is a simple reason for this. Crucifixion was only stopped in the Roman Empire during the middle of the fourth century. Early Christians were very much aware of what a horrendous instrument of torture and death the cross was. They would never dream of wearing a cross around their neck or displaying it on a wall. In fact, one of the oldest artistic depictions of Jesus on the cross was meant as a mockery of Christ and His followers. It is a piece of graffiti engraved on the wall of an army barracks dating from the year 200. It shows a man with the head of a donkey nailed to a cross. Beneath the cross is a man in a gesture of adoration before the cross. The inscription below the image reads “Alexamenos worships his God”. Alexamenos was undoubtedly a Christian who was being mocked by his fellow soldiers.  We need to avoid the temptation to domestic the cross and become desensitized to the terrible reality of what it used to represent.

"Alexamenos worships his God", c. 200, (more info here)
Today we can celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross because Jesus transformed the meaning and significance of the Cross completely and with it the entire world. To better understand this, we can think of a virus that is downloaded on a computer. When this happens, the virus slowly takes over the computer and changes it over time. The virus makes the computer do and become something different. Jesus dying on the cross was like a virus implanted on the computer that is sin, death and evil, mortally wounding them and destroying them from within. The cross we exult today is the cross on which Jesus hung. It is the cross that was sanctified by His sacrifice and is forever the fruit and testimony of His immense love which brought about a remarkable transformation. With His death on the cross, Jesus transformed not just what the cross symbolizes, but our entire reality:
Death was transformed into life.
A symbol of oppression was transformed into a symbol freedom.
A curse was changed into a blessing.
A sign of violence and terror was transformed into a symbol of ultimate self giving love.

In transforming the cross and the world, Jesus shows us the true meaning of power. A good definition of power is, “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the course of events”. What, however, gives one the ability to change events? Each year, Forbes magazine releases its list of the 100 Most Powerful People in the world. This year, the top five were: Putin, Obama, Xi Jinping, Pope Francis and Angela Merkel.  Forbes would argue that power comes by having more: more money, more position and prestige and more military strength. The Cross of Christ reveals that real power, one that brings lasting change is something very different. For Jesus, power is not getting more for yourself; rather, true power is giving of yourself more. Genuine power comes from kenosis, the Greek word for self-emptying or self-gift. The self-emptying of Jesus is expressed beautifully in the second reading. “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped”. Jesus emptied and sacrificed Himself for us out of love. He who is God became a man, and a poor man at that. He who created all that is became the servant of all. The author of life suffered a terrible death on the cross. With these actions, however, Jesus brought about lasting change: He destroyed death and restored life. He showed the meaning of true power.

Many of us wear a cross or crucifix around our neck. Perhaps we have become too comfortable and familiar with this image. Let us remind ourselves that wearing a cross should truly be a fashion statement. It should say something to others and ourselves about how we have chosen to live. It is, in fact, an act of rebellion against a way of thinking that says power is found in money, status and physical might. Displaying a cross rebels against this view and shows another way. It says no to the idea that violence can be conquered by violence. It goes against the idea that a hurt or wrong is best dealt with by vengeance rather than forgiveness. Wearing a cross sends the message that true power involves lovingly giving ourselves to others through service and sacrifice. Let us make this fashion statement both with what we wear around our neck and in how we act.