The sign of the cross

Jesus’ invitation: “Take up your cross and follow me,” was quite literally heeded last week by Spaniard Justo Marquez, who trudged 140 kms from Malaga in Spain to Gibraltar carrying a three-metre high wooden cross. Reportedly, Mr Marquez was worried about Spain’s standoff with Gibraltar and bore a banner: “No more hunger! No more war! Peace in the world!”

Christ’s cross is arguably the most used — and abused — religious symbol. Believers wear crosses as pendants or enshrine them at home. Churches conspicuously display the cross and Christians bless themselves with the “sign of the cross” at prayer. Nonetheless, during the Crusades, the cross was used to subjugate “infidels”.
Christians annually celebrate two feasts of the cross: Good Friday, commemorating Jesus’ sacrificial death, and the “Exaltation of the cross” on September 14, which celebrates: (a) The finding of Jesus’ true cross by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine in 326 AD
(b) The dedication of churches built by Constantine on Mount Calvary in 335 A.D.
(c) The restoration of the true cross to Jerusalem by the Emperor Heraclius II in 629 AD
While Good Friday basically highlights Jesus’ death on the cross, the “Exaltation” exults in the cross as symbol of life over death, good over evil, hope over despair. Ancient Greek thinkers and Roman historians considered execution by crucifixion as the vilest form of torture, humiliation and death. Jesus’ cross — transformed by his resurrection — symbolises love lifted up, so to say.
The nailed, outstretched arms of the Crucified One stand as silent testimony of the limitless love of the lover for the beloved. True love is unconditional and self-sacrificing. Can a mother impose conditions on her love for her children, or a soldier limits to his giving? Mothers will suffer and soldiers will be sacrificed; but, their self-emptying will always be “lifted up” with lasting life, love, liberation.
Far from being an exclusively Christian symbol, I’d reiterate what Irenaeus (130-202 AD) said: “Our world is indelibly marked by the sign of the cross.” Indeed, who among us doesn’t suffer, age, die? There’s a natural dimension to these processes, which must be accepted; but, also a manmade component that we must counter.
Jesus’ cross was a consequence neither of cowardice nor of passivism. Jesus fearlessly fought fanaticism and challenged loveless laws. On the cross, he was silenced. Beyond it, his resurrection powerfully proclaims that love is stronger than death.
The universal dukh (woe) that frightens and frustrates us must, somehow, be addressed. Through vairagya (renunciation) and tyag (sacrifice) we’re all called to carry our crosses. Justo Marquez quite literally carried a wooden one. Today, aren’t we rather uplifted by its significance?

Francis Gonsalves is a professor of theology. He can be contacted at fragons@gmail.com

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