The Meaning of the Cross

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Increasingly we are seeing attempts to use or appropriate traditional Christian symbolism in art or performance in order to be ‘clever’ or ‘edgy’, to create controversy or ‘make people think’.

Sometimes this is done without much consideration of the actual meaning of these symbols. Other times there are more sinister intentions and an effort to promote spiritual darkness.

I want to state clearly that appropriating traditional Christian symbolism is not acceptable. It is disrespectful to the Christian community, and the contribution they make to society.
 
The cross is the most central and sacred of the symbols of Christianity. Crosses have traditionally adorned the top of Christian churches. They mark many features dedicated to Christian use, like Catholic schools. They are used to identify a Christian burial place. Christians wear a cross on a chain around their neck as a declaration of their personal faith. It is the universal symbol of Christianity.

A crucifix is a cross including the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The crucifix identifies the cross as an instrument used by the Romans to execute people. Depictions of Jesus dying on the cross have been the subject of art over the two millennia of Christianity. Images of the crucified Christ are myriad. These works of art reflect the profound sense of what God has done to redeem humanity. They are objects of deep devotion.

Each Good Friday Catholics approach the cross and venerate it by a kiss. It is a most moving time for each person. They humbly acknowledge the saving death of their redeemer.

Nailing a person to a cross, as was the case for Jesus of Nazareth, was a most cruel means of capital punishment. The representations of Christ on the cross show a human being exposed to the harsh torture of a slow agonising death. Yet when Christians display a crucifix or erect a cross they do not focus on the terrible use of this instrument of punishment, but rather they are drawn to see in Christ being crucified the most powerful of witness to the love of God for humanity. The crucifixion of Christ reveals a God whose love knows no limits.

Thus, as a Christian looks upon the cross they see a love beyond imagining.

Currently in Hobart three crosses are being displayed in prominent locations. It is clear that this is not part of an attempt to promote the Christian message, but rather the use of the central Christian symbol for some ulterior purpose.

This has rightfully upset many Christians in this city. It is clear that those responsible do not really appreciate the true meaning of the symbol and its sacredness in the eyes of believers.

The three crosses are red in colour. Again this is clearly a reference to the Christian understanding of the cross. Christ was crucified with two others.  Red has strong significance especially in Christian tradition. The liturgical colour for Good Friday is red. The colour emphasises the colour of the blood of Christ which was poured out in his act of self-sacrifice. The Catholic Church uses red when martyrs are honoured. Again, the colour reflects the idea of the sacrifice of one’s life. Thus, for the Christian, red is the colour of sacrifice. The colour reminds the Christian of the blood of Christ poured out for the sake of humanity.

Perhaps the most deeply troubling aspect of the installation is the inversion of the crosses. In the Catholic tradition it is believed that St Peter, the first head of the Church, when condemned to death by crucifixion (very close to where St Peter’s is in Rome today), asked to be crucified upside down. He did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same way as his Master. It was an act of humility. However, it is clear that this inversion is not intended to remind us of the sacrifice of St Peter. The Christian tradition has never used the image of an inverted cross as part of its devotional practice.

In seeing these inverted crosses being displayed, let this be an opportunity to contemplate the real meaning of the Christian cross. St Paul said, “I glory in the cross of Christ.”