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Contemplating the Cross

A spiritual practice for a crucial era


To follow Jesus is to face the cross and aim our lives through and beyond it.

As is the case with authoritarian regimes around the world today, Rome distrusted anyone who attracted a following that might turn into a rebellion.  The Jesus movement made the Roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators nervous.  So it was not too surprising that they manufactured a sedition case against him and subjected him to death by torture:  a slow, agonizing execution that was meant to frighten Roman subjects into obedient submission. Jesus was but one of very many others killed in this manner.

The Romans intended the cross to be a symbol of the consequences of defying the power of the empire. But the early Christians turned the symbolism of the cross on its head.  Through Jesus’ crucifixion, an alternative empire was being established on earth, in direct contradiction to the empire of Rome. Through the crucifixion, God’s realm of peace, justice, equality, and charity was coming into being – not just in heaven, but on earth.  A few hundred years after Jesus’ death, the Roman Empire collapsed.  But the cross remained, adorning the tops of Christian churches throughout Rome’s former territory.

And it has aimed beyond itself ever since.

The people of Israel, wandering in their forty-year desert exodus, began to despair of their fate and were then punished with a plague of snakes that bit and killed some of them. Moses cried out to God for help, and God told him to put up a bronze serpent on a pole and have the people gaze at it, and thus be healed of the snakebites. The gospel of John (3:14) said that as the serpent was lifted on the pole to save Israel, so Jesus would have to be lifted up in order to save humanity. The bronze serpent was spiritual homeopathy, the ancient system of medicine based on the principle that “a dose of that which ails you is the cure”.  The caduceus, the symbol of serpents on a pole, is the symbol of medicine.  Likewise, the cross is sacred medicine, spiritual homeopathy for the human condition of suffering and mortality.

The cross is anything that we think will save us, but crucifies us instead. The cross is anything in which we put our ultimate trust and faith and hope, which in turn betrays us.  The military might we hope will save us, but instead entangles us in terrible wars.  The medical technology in which we put our faith, but then addicts us or torments us with bad side-effects.  The vehicles we think we can’t live without, which then ensnare us in traffic jams.  The Romans thought the cross would save their Empire.  But their brutality contributed to its fall.  The early Christians turned a symbol of torture and state power into a symbol of personal and social liberation.  We can do the same with the crosses that torment us today.  By facing our crosses squarely, seeing them for what they are, we move through and beyond them.

Medieval Christians created the Stations of the Cross, depicting fourteen stops along Jesus’ way from being condemned to death to being crucified and buried.  Images of these stations are often found on the walls of Catholic Christian sanctuaries to this day.  Some of the stations are based on passages in the biblical gospels, and others are based on later legends.  They are a powerful means of contemplating the “passion” of Jesus’ last days.

One of the legends, represented by station number six, is that a woman named Veronica — whose name in Latin means “true image” — wiped Jesus’ suffering face with a cloth as he carried his cross past her.  In so doing, an image of his sweaty and bloody face was left on the cloth, which became a legendary religious relic in the Middle Ages.  But there is mystical significance to this legend.  It wasn’t just the cloth that bore the Veronica – the true image of the Christ.  It was Veronica herself, as well.  When we face the suffering of Christ, opening our hearts to it, we fully encounter our own sufferings.  We face the vivid reality, the true image, of our own human condition of suffering.  The Christ is the mirror in which we gaze, in order to go through and past our suffering.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous begin with the same paradox.  Step One says: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”  But if the alcoholic is powerless, where’s the hope of recovery?  This looks like a wall, not a step.

And yet, this is the true image of the alcoholic.  He or she does indeed experience hopelessness in addiction.  But by fully facing and naming this true image, by gazing at this cross in all its horror, the alcoholic takes the next steps on the journey through it and beyond it.

The shape of the cross has spiritual significance, as well.

Jewish rabbinical tradition ascribed spiritual meanings to the shapes of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  For instance, the letter G, gimel, is ג – a shape that was creatively interpreted as a rich man chasing after a poor man to give him assistance.

In that spirit, we are free to ponder the possible meanings of the form of the cross.  It is an axis mundi, a center of the world marking the x-y coordinate from which the past and the future, the up and the down, the conscious and the unconscious, the inner and the outer, the lesser and the greater emanate.  Its two bars converge on a focal point directing our attention toward deeper awareness and compassion.

The shape of the cross aims us where we need to go.

In churches, I often find myself contemplating the cross.  It is a kind of “visio divina” – another way of climbing Guigo’s ladder, through seeing.  It becomes the means of focus, and the focus itself, of worship.  It centers and guides me toward the life-giving Love that is God….

Click here to view my three short videos re: Contemplative Christian Practices


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