Did you know that the cross—the central symbol of our faith—was not widely used by Christians until some 400 years after Jesus’ death? That’s a long time!
Prior to that, and continuing afterward, a variety of symbols were used including a fish (which has enjoyed a modern revival), a dove, a ship, a lyre and an anchor. These images appear on ancient Christian grave markers and signet rings.
Why not the cross? Why did it take so long for the cross to become our primary symbol?
We might say that it is because the agony of Jesus’ death was not something people wanted to remember. We might say that early Christians did not want to dignify this Roman form of torturous execution.
The reality is, however, that the cross is absent in these early years because Jesus’ death was thought to be in no way comparable to his resurrection. The miracle of life triumphing over death was the point, not the character of Jesus’ death.
It was only later, when the church became singularly focused on doctrine and centralizing its power in a hierarchical structure, that theological meaning was attached to Jesus’ crucifixion.
The idea that Jesus died for our sins or to save us from Satan, would not have occurred to the very early Christians; at least not in any widespread way. Jesus was simply executed like so many others during the time of Roman occupation. It was his resurrection that mattered. It was his return that caused the formation of the Christian faith. Deep theological musings about atonement only came as a luxury to a church that finally became the dominant religious force in western religion.
This is not to say that Jesus’ crucifixion had no meaning. It is only to point out that a codified meaning of it was attached much later. Immediately following his death, early Christians were free to develop their own understanding of his death and openly discuss different views about it in their own, diverse Christian communities.
I think there is great value in returning to this. In our class on Sunday, I will be outlining the dominant doctrinal views of Jesus’ crucifixion and the atonement that it brought about. More importantly, however, I want us to then share our own understandings of the crucifixion.
What do you agree with and disagree with when it comes to traditional understandings of Jesus’ death on the cross? What meaning does the cross hold for you, personally?
We should never take what is handed down to us by Christian tradition at face value. It is incumbent on us to dig deeper and discern how the Holy Spirit is calling each of us to find new meaning in this ancient symbol and this tragic, historical moment; especially as we enter Holy Week.
See you in church,