What is the significance of the Christian crucifix – and can it be ranked alongside the symbols of other religions? Although a common practice, and regarded by many believers as an ‘essential’ part of their faith, the fact is that no Christian is obliged to wear one. Now Jesus did say to His followers, “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27) But he wasn’t talking about a piece of jewellery. The ‘cross’ he had in mind was an instrument of torture and execution, and he was warning his followers to expect rejection, ridicule, persecution and death. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (himself executed by the Nazis) put it: “Every call of Christ leads to death.”
Over nearly two thousand years, Christianity has become sanitised – and some aspects of it even trivialised – in the Western world. Baptism by immersion (in the unhygienic waters of the nearest river or pond) quickly turned into a perfunctory sprinkling of the forehead. The Lenten fast has long been reduced to merely forgoing treats (such as chocolate). And since crucifixion was (thankfully) abolished as a method of execution, people have rather forgotten its ugliness and barbarity. Instead, a cross has become a decorative item, made of precious metal. Would we be so enthusiastic about wearing a representation of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair? Do we realise how deeply shocking to outsiders it was in the first century AD for believers to celebrate the fact that their Master was executed in such a fashion?
Christianity didn’t begin its life as a ‘nice’, comforting religion. Its focal point is not Jesus’ moral teaching (demanding though that is) but His crucifixion. He spent a large proportion of the preceding two or three years trying to hammer into his disciples’ heads that his death had been foretold – planned in advance. He died by public execution, condemned by the Jewish authorities for blasphemy and by the Romans for treason. These are the crimes committed by the human race against God, and Jesus submitted to the accepted judicial penalty on our behalf.
Nowadays, of course, the death penalty has been abolished in almost all ‘civilised’ countries, and the idea that man might owe anything to his Maker is scoffed at. What meaning does a cross now have for non-believers? Why indeed do Christians wear them at all? “By this all men will know that you are my disciples” – not by the displaying of any symbol but “because you love one another” (John 13:35). Now that really would make us stand out…