We begin our exploration of the symbolism of the cross with the loud, background noise of coughing. At least that’s how I begin the exploration, because, this week as I was reflecting on this sacred object we encounter in religions around the world, I was suffering and recovering from the flu.
Yup, it got me.
Did it get you, too?
There’s nothing like the flu to help us appreciate how times of physical health reflect a finely-tuned balance of physiological forces and fluids. In balance, life is good. Out of balance, life feels like a messy disaster. The full-body ache; the low-energy; the congestion; the twitchy tickle in your chest; the all-too-frequent, all-of-a-sudden, middle-of-the-conversation, coughing-up-a-lung scene; all the money thrown at all the businesses selling Zicam and Tylenol and Ricola and Mucinex and Nyquil and Vicks and on and on and on.
And don’t forget Kleenex.
All because the body’s health homeostasis has been overwhelmed. A symbol of that could be the horizontal and vertical lines of a cross all crazy askew. The parts in pieces, at odd angles. But put them back in order—vertical bar straight upright, horizontal bar straight across, both bars crossed at the midpoint—and that’s the spitting image of balance. That’s the perfect image of chaos being redeemed into order.
No surprise, then, that the image of a cross would be the perfect sign for healing in general and, in particular, for an organization which provides emergency assistance and disaster relief for communities around the world. It was also founded by a Universalist, Clara Barton.
What organization am I talking about?
The Red Cross.
But all such images like the Red Cross play upon a fundamental archetype that is ancient in the imagination of spiritual beings having a human experience. Because having a human experience, in all times and places, has meant opposing forces meeting and clashing, like flu bugs and white cells, or the fury of hurricanes and the order of cities, or the machineries of hate and the countercultural forces of justice.
But we also know that having a human experience also means that life can be more than opposing forces clashing: the original balance, once lost, can be regained; or a new balance, at a different level, can be achieved.
As artist Judy Chicago once said,
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong.
This is what the archetypal image of the cross is all about, whenever it appears in specific symbols we encounter in the world’s religions.
And so, from Ancient Egypt, we have a stylized version of a cross called an “ankh,” which is two crossed lines with a loop at the top. Gods were pictured as carrying them, and humans certainly did, because the ankh was an object of power to protect against evil and death. Life and death are opposing forces that cross, but the symbol pictures the forces balanced and the result is a power to preserve.
Many hieroglyphics display Egyptian deities carrying ankhs, or handing ankhs over to humans. One striking image comes from the reign of Akhenaten, back in the fourteenth century BCE. The sun God is displayed with rays beaming down to the earth, and at the end of each ray is a tiny ankh.
The God is beaming Life down to humanity….
The ankh is one symbol in religious history that reflects one way of expressing the basic message of the cross, and here is another: Native America’s Sacred Hoop. This particular version takes the form of a cross surrounded by a circle, and each of the four quadrants represents a dimension of life, with earth and sky at the center. It means that everything has a place. North, South, East, West. Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. Wolf, Buffalo, Eagle, Bear. Elder, Child, Adolescent, Adult. Independence, Generosity, Mastery, Belonging. Everything is meant to be there….
Listen to Black Elk, a shaman of the Oglala Sioux Indians. What he says is sacred scripture to us because it’s in the back of our hymnal, number #614. Please read responsively, with me:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all.
ALL: And round beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell,
ALL: And I understood more than I saw.
For I was seeing in the sacred manner the shape of all things of the spirit
ALL: And the shapes as they must live together like one being.
And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people
Was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as the daylight and starlight.
ALL: And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree
To shelter all the children of one mother and one father.
ALL: And I saw that it was holy.
Everything is meant to be there. Separate things all belong; and they are all interconnected in the Sacred Hoop, it is all an interconnected web of being….
This version of the cross was food to the Native American spirit as our American government was destroying their bodies and their nations and in some ways still is.
You cannot tell me that only one people, only one tradition owns the cross. It belongs to the world. If we had time I’d tell you about how traditional Chinese cosmology saw the cross as nothing less than the sacred geometry of the universe. Or how the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is shown with a cross on his head. Or we could go all depth psychological and talk about the quaternity, how an image with a fourfold structure points to psychological wholeness.
We could go on.
But I’ll bet you’re wondering about another version of the cross … the one we find in Christianity.
One my first, vivid memories of a crucifix is the one that my parents’ Ukrainian Greek Orthodox priest handed them, after a marathon session of marital counseling. We were living in Peace River, Alberta at the time, 300 miles away from the closest Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church, which was to the south of us, in Edmonton. Rev. Kryschuk, who had actually baptized me when I was only weeks old, drove the 300 miles to be with my parents, because their marriage was crashing and burning. He handed to them a shiny brass crucifix, the size of his big hand, perhaps to emphasize the spiritual willpower they would need to resurrect their marriage. My mother gently kissed it, and so did my father.
I hoped and believed things would get better, because I sensed power in this particular version of the archetypal cross, although I was too young at the time to articulate it.
I just sensed it: power to heal, power to give life.
But things did not get better. I’ll say more about that in a moment. For now, I’m just noticing, with amazement, how, in my early experience of the cross, I seemed oblivious to Jesus’ agony. I saw a crucifix and did not really see the crucifixion that goes with it.
This is not a perception gap that the original Christians had. The fact was, in the years immediately following Jesus’ death, and for several hundred years after, memories about the bloody reality of the crucifix were still too raw; the symbol was still too toxic to touch.
Think of what it must have been like to be a follower of Jesus right after his public execution—after what they saw Jesus go through, and what it implied about the danger they were all in.
Are you really going to wear a crucifix?
It would be like you, today, wearing a small version of an electric chair around your neck—this, after a beloved family member of yours had just been executed by one.
That’s what wearing a crucifix would have meant back then. Back then, the symbols of the infant Christian faith were instead that of a fish (bringing to mind Jesus as a “fisher of men”) or that of a dove (bringing to mind how the Holy Spirit came upon him when he was baptized) or that of a man holding a sheep around his shoulders (because Jesus was the Good Shepherd). Then there was the symbol of the peacock, because that was a symbol of immortality to the ancients. The anchor, too, was important to the faith, because it represented safety, and eternal life.
But not the crucifix. Only after many years, and many incidents, did the image of the crucifix take on the prominence that it has for us today, as the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity. Fish, dove, Good Shepherd, peacock, and anchor have all given way.
The story of how that happened is not one we have time here to tell. What we do want to reflect on is the story each of us brings to the crucifix. Where each of us is in relationship to this particular version of the archetypal cross.
For myself, you can already tell it’s complicated. A long time ago I sensed power in it to bring healing, and that did not happen.
Where was God in the suffering of my parents? In my suffering?
By the time I was a teenager, I was a long distance away from my Ukrainian Greek Orthodox origins. I was Church of Christ, and there I learned such things as: If you aren’t a Christian, you are going to hell. If you aren’t baptized through the full immersion of your body in water, you are going to hell. If you play musical instruments in church services, you are going to hell. Gandhi is going to hell, and so is Mother Theresa, and so is anyone who’s not Church of Christ.
Going to hell, going to hell, going to hell!
After I’d left the Church of Christ, and the more conversant I became in world history, I started to notice how often the crucifix was present in times of state-sponsored violence. It was the sign under which Crusaders terrorized the Middle East, the sign under which the Conquistadors and the Pilgrims brought ruin to indigenous populations in the Americas.
Under the crucifix sign.
Lots of baggage with that symbol, in other words. Far less with the Sacred Hoop image, or with the Ankh, or with the cross on Quetzalcoatl’s forehead. These kinds of crosses are so much easier to affirm….
But here’s the thing. I am discovering in myself a need for a symbol that just tells it like it is. That says that spiritual beings can have human experiences that are as bad as a crucifixion.
Because it surely happens.
Some of you have ancestors who, in the 19th and 20th centuries, were lynched. That, in fact, is about as close as you can get to a crucifixion. The public execution quality of it; the victim humiliated, mocked, mutilated, tortured, and, in many cases, stripped naked; the effect of the lynching radiating outward to impact the entire African American community as a powerful warning to stay small, stay down, stay in your lane.
Spiritual beings can have human experiences just like that. Because something is different about you. Something is wrong and you don’t belong. You’re on the outside, but you need to have the right skin color, the right sexual orientation, the right abilities, the right gender, the right beliefs to be on the inside.
What suffering, to hear people I loved say that Gandhi is going to hell, or Mother Theresa!
What suffering, to know that the followers of the crucified Jesus could themselves rise up and crucify entire populations under the sign of the crucifix!
This is just more of how the world can be a messed up place of pure pain.
But the genius of the crucifix is that it goes beyond this. The pain doesn’t stay stuck. The crucifix is also and in the same instant a messenger of rebirth. Redemption. Resurrection.
It says that it does not matter how oblivious the religious right seems to be to the anti-Christian behaviors of our leading United States Politician, or to his anti-Christian policies—it does not matter. The truth will beat fake news. The truth doesn’t need Twitter.
The truth will come out, and transform.
Lynchings—or the preschool-to-prison pipeline which is a sort of lynching too—don’t have to be the last word for African Americans. Violence in the name of God doesn’t have to be last word.
Evil is not endless. Evil can be redeemed.
Even a priest who drives all of 300 miles to do marriage counseling with a troubled husband and wife, and it doesn’t take, and all he knows how to do is give a gift of a sacred image because he is totally and completely out of his depths—even this, redeemed.
The question is not so much where is God in all the suffering, but where are we with God? How are we helping?
The version of the cross we call the crucifix tells a story of pain, and ultimate redemption from pain, and this message is beautiful, I don’t care whether or not you believe in God, it’s not really about that, it’s about whether or not you believe in hope.
Hope is bigger than any religion.
Let that be my faith. In hope.
And let me say this. One more thing. That any symbol that brings hope, is bigger than its home tradition.
Which is why I say: The crucifix is bigger than Christianity.
That’s what I’m saying. The crucifix is bigger than Christianity.
With my Unitarian Universalist arms flung out wide, I embrace the crucifix, because God I need it, I need it, I need it.
We need it.