Why the Sign of the Cross?

I’m thinking I must have touched a nerve of some kind with my recent post on making the “sign of the cross” and other manual acts. The internet said their was a lot of traffic and it raised a few additional questions. I’ll try to address one of the here. But remember, if you have questions that you’d like to see me tackle, be sure to leave it in the comments or drop me a line.

One of the questions that came out of the onversation about the “sign of the cross” is why Christians use the symbol of the cross at all? Why would we use the image of the worst thing that ever happened in Jesus’ life to identify ourselves with him? Why not use something different?

This is a question with a long track record. There are even parts of St. Paul’s letter that seem to be wrestling with it. The notion that we might take pride in the humiliation of our Lord seems to have been as confounding to those in the first century as it is in our own.

I think there are probably at least two answers that we need to look at here. One is more technical and the other more theological. Like so many things in the world of faith, though, the final answer probably varies somewhat from believer to believer.

So, here goes.

At a technical level, not all images of the cross are the same. Apart from specific issues of design like shape and aspect (which I’ll take up on another day) there is a basic difference between a crossupon which the figure of Jesus is still affixed and an empty cross. The former, called a crucifix, is a symbol of Jesus’ passion, while the latter, often just called ‘a cross’ is a symbol of resurrection.

Thus, on the one hand, the use of the empty cross – the one which Jesus has transcended – technically speaks of the transcendence of death to which all Christians aspire. You can see the logic here. But I’m never much for strictly technical solutions. the difference between a cross and a crucifix is subtle and it depends on a strictly Christian understanding. I’m not sure this is the best answer for our question.

Which leads us to the more theological side of things. If all crosses hold at least a symbolic relationship to the death of Christ, why would the church push this so far forward? Wouldn’t we be better to have some more triumphal sign?

Actually, no. Part of the mystery of God’s work in the lives of human kind from the beginning has been his willingness to take the broken, the sinful, the unlikely and the weak and turn them into vehicles for his grace and love. From the apple-eating Adam and Eve to Sarah the Barren to Ruth the Outsider to Jacob the Trickster to Jesus the Crucified, in each epoch, God has chosen precisely that thing which is furthest from the triumphal to be a blessing. God seems out to confound “the wisdom of the wise.” And to sho how his “power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, while it may be a bit confusing and even a bit scandalous for Christians to use the sign of the cross with such abandon, it turns out that this is by God’s design. In doing so, we remind ourselves and the world that God is constantly and consistently working through the weak, the outcast and the confounding to bring about the changes that he desires in the word that he made.

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