In the novel Theophilus, Michael O'Brien portrays the main character, a physician like Luke but not initially a Christian believer, as sickened by the cruelty of crucifixions. He is therefore horrified when he finds one of his servants praying with a crucifix in his hands. He cannot understand why the Christians have made a symbol of worship out of this horrible instrument of torment. O'Brien captures very well the surprising nature of the Christians' veneration of the cross. And indeed, the oddity--either for Jews or Gentiles--of the early glorification of the cross is one of many pieces of evidence that they had strong reason to believe that Jesus was not just another victim of the evil of man, that God had vindicated him.
I was struck by this conflict between the cross as symbol and as reality this evening while singing "In the Cross of Christ I Glory." The title is taken from St. Paul's avowal in Galatians, "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Christ." The last verse goes
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified.
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abide.
And I began thinking of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil (though I couldn't then remember his name) who has been captured by ISIS in Yemen. The nuns of his order fear that he will be or has been crucified by ISIS today, Good Friday. Others have argued that the fear is unfounded, but in any event, Fr. Tom is certainly in danger if not already dead, and ISIS has been known to crucify people.
How, I wondered, could I glorify the cross as a symbol of my salvation while Christians are literally being killed on crosses by the most evil of men who glory in torturing and mocking Christians by this means of death? When the notion of crucifixion ceases to be a notion and becomes all too real, it becomes difficult to sing about how "peace is there that knows no measure."
Yet the Apostle Paul was not a comfortable, 21st-century, American Christian. He lived in a time when men were crucified. He personally knew Peter who, according to tradition, was later crucified upside down. Paul escaped a similar fate only because he was a Roman citizen. And it is the Apostle Paul who first teaches us in Scripture to glory in the cross. "For I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified." "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world."
Somehow it was possible for those early Christians to hold the cross in their minds as both a symbol and a reality and to embrace that reality because, as Paul quotes a "faithful saying," "If we die with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him." "Buried with him by baptism into the likeness of his death, raised in his likeness to walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection."
And so, they were willing to die, like Christians facing the evil of ISIS. Like Fr. Tom. It wasn't that they did not know, that they did not understand. It was, and is, that they understand better. They go past the easy thoughts of the cross, mind half-wandering, heart unmoved by what has become old hat. But so, too, they go beyond the sheer, stark, horror, a horror to darken the mind, of the thing itself. For on the other side of the horror that Our Lord suffered, and that all Christians are called in some measure to suffer with him, and that some suffer literally, there is a deeper meaning yet again, which is neither easy symbol nor mind-paralyzing evil and torture. And that meaning is the reversal of evil, accomplished by that death. If it had not been accomplished by that crucifixion, then every crucifixion would be nothing more than, at most, a tale of gross evil nobly born by an innocent victim. And at worst we should suspect that perhaps even nobility itself had no meaning at all.
But now, we see through a glass darkly that death need not be just death, that crucifixion, yes, even real crucifixion, need not be just crucifixion, because Jesus died and, by death, defeated death, and lives again.