Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sign of the Cross

It is said that the oldest extant depiction of Jesus' crucifixion is a piece of griffito found on the wall of a building unearthed on one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.

The dating is uncertain, maybe the third century.

The drawing (discovered in 1857) looks like something done by a child on an Etch-A-Sketch. A man is looking at a cross on which hangs a human form but with the head of a donkey. The artist has scratched across his artwork a description in Latin which is usually translated: "Alexamenos worships his God."

The artist was mocking the Christian admission that Jesus, Son of God, was crucified!

We who have grown accustomed to seeing images of the crucified Lord can scarcely imagine the shock and disdain with which both Jews and Gentiles heard the Christian claim.

Paul acknowledged that preaching a Christ crucified was "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).

It would bother us today if Jesus were depicted in an electric chair or with a noose around his neck. I suspect our repulsion at such an idea would fall short of the reaction of those who first heard Paul's preaching.

Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe has concluded that it took the Church 400 years to dare to portray Christ on the cross, on the door of S. Sabina (a church on another one of Rome's seven hills).

Christians are not ashamed of the thought and image of a crucified Lord. They see it as a sign of the depths of God's love, a clear indication of how much God identified with the sinfulness of the human race so that he might restore them to innocence. It is said that Jesus paid the penalty which was due our sins.

Our ease with looking at a crucifix, our appreciation for Christ's sacrifice, however, must not keep us from recognizing that those who follow in Jesus' footsteps are expected to pick up a cross and walk behind him.

From the start Christians have likewise been crucified. Some, like Peter, were actually nailed to cross beams. Others have been executed for professing their faith. Still others (the majority of Christians) have had to lay down their lives in order to live according to the Gospel.

When I feel the pinch of being Christian I must remind myself of the example Jesus gave. At that point a cross or crucifix ceases to be an icon or a piece of jewelry and becomes the sign of a true disciple.

I like the story of the man who complained to God that his cross was too much. So God invited him into heaven's "cross room" and told him to lay down his cross and select another from the many models hanging around the warehouse.

The man tried several on for size. One was too heavy, one had beams too broad for the man's shoulders, and other had such rough and splintered wood that the man thought it worse than his original.

Finally he selected a cross, and told Jesus, "This is the one!"

Jesus smiled, "Good," the Lord said, "I am glad you found one that fits. I must tell you, however, that the cross you chose is the one you came in with!"

No Christian escapes his cross. Once we acknowledge that little bit of wisdom (and make friends with the cross we have) the Christian experience becomes a good bit easier.

I don't know who Alexamenos was, but I trust he didn't let a piece of graffito dissuade him from following Christ.

1 comment:

  1. There is the story of Joseph, the carpenter, informing his apprentice son, that with the failing economy and the drop in orders at the shop, Jesus should start "cross training". The rest is history.