“The cross,” someone once said, “has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore.” The thought struck me as I walked through a shop with items to buy stashed in every possible crevice: frog-shaped garden statues, multi-colored curios, inventive décor made from soda cans, beach glass, refurbished car parts. Occasionally surfacing through the ornamented walls were cross-shaped or cross-adorned objects, so ordinary in a shop so out-of-the-ordinary, they were almost hard to notice at all. The cross has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore. The thought altered the remainder of my browsing. How can this be true? How can an image once shameful enough to bow the proudest heads have ever become ordinary? Could the gallows ever be innocuous? Would the death sentence of someone near us ever fail to get our attention, much less blend in beside earthenware and figurines?
Theodore Prescott is a sculptor who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the cross. In the 1980’s he began working on a series of crosses using different materials, forms, and processes hoping to reconstitute the cultural and scriptural imagery of the Roman cross. In a sense, Prescott attempts to portray the incongruous. The Roman cross was a loathsome manner of execution that inflicted an anguished death; the Cross of Christ held a man who went willingly—and without guilt. Though a reflection of beauty and sacrifice, the cross is also an image of physical torture, inseparable from flesh and blood. There was a body on these beams. Its image bears both startling realities—the presence of outstretched limbs and the mystery of a now vacant cross. These contrasts alone are replete with a peculiar depth. Yet, our daily intake of the cross “precludes contemplation,” notes Prescott. The cross has indeed become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore.
Maybe he is right. But if the cross has become merely a symbol of Christianity, an emblem of one religion in a sea of others, it is still a symbol that stands secluded from the others. Even as an image among many or an image buried in bric-a-brac, it remains conspicuously on its own. The symbol of the cross is an instrument of death. It is also, curiously, a symbol of God’s kindness. Far from ordinary, it suggests, at the very least, a beautiful and terrible love quite beyond us. Could it be that it is we who have become ordinary, our senses dulled to unconsciousness by the daily matters we give precedence? Even in his own time, the apostle Paul lamented such a blurring of the cross, calling the world to a greater vision: As I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.
For those who will not look carefully, the cross can be perceived as foolish or not perceived at all. It can be stripped of meaning or emptied of beauty, hope, and depth. But it cannot be emptied of Christ. “If any want to become followers,” said Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The message of the cross may be nothing to some, but to those who will stand in its shame and offense, scandal and power, it is everything.
Moreover, even where the cross is obscure, Christ is still near. Ironically, what started Theodore Prescott thinking about the absence of the cross’s meaning was a piece of his own art in which many people saw a cruciform image, though this was not his intention or vision when he started. For those who will see, the cross of Christ is expectantly present in every moment and every scene. In its beauty, we are changed. In view of extended limbs and a broken body, we discover a present, physical aspect to the way of Christ. In the scandal of its emptiness, we are left yearning for the face of the risen Christ again: “I want to know Christ,” said Paul, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
The Gospel of John reports that Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the beams of the common cross that bore the radical rabbi. It read in three languages: “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” There is nothing ordinary about the manner in which this king died, the cross on which he hung, or the symbol of death on which he inscribed a hope that would be carried throughout the nations. There was an ordinary cross in history with his name on it, and he went to it with nothing short of the world in mind.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.