In every nation, culture, and civilization, during every age, symbols have evolved that bind people to each other and to their communities. If pictures paint a thousand words, symbols convey concepts and emotions that fill libraries. When used appropriately, symbols have inspired great feats; though the opposite also is true—when abused, symbols have provoked horrendous deeds. But this post is largely about the uniquely positive message of one enduring symbol: the Cross.
The Cross, is so simple in form–two lines overlapping each other–that it can be formed on paper by children, in the wilderness with two sticks of wood, and in the sand with a finger. Since a young carpenter dragged it to his execution, the Cross has been the most enduring symbol of the Christian faith. In that role, the Cross has become a personal symbol to the faithful, a collective symbol to an entire religion, and has transcended Christianity as a fundamental symbol of Western Civilization.
I am not a theologian, and will not pretend or attempt to be in this post. But, the centrality of the symbolic Cross seems very important to me this Easter, as this world seems to be spinning out of control.
Regardless of the nature of our faiths (or lack of faith), I imagine that each of us looks at the Cross, in whatever context we may encounter it, and experiences our own intimate reactions. It touches me on several levels, but I will describe just two in this post.
At a philosophical and religious level, the Cross reminds me of the central paradox of Christianity and the civilization it created: one man’s execution and resurrection liberated mankind for the rest of human history. That liberation bestowed us with both the great gifts of our inalienable rights, as well as the challenge to use those rights to love our neighbors. The history of the last two thousand years seems to be a history of our struggle to accept both the gifts and the challenge.
Consistent with this struggle on a personal level, the sight of the Cross—in a church, in a cemetery, in a child’s drawings—always reminds me that I can, and should, be better than I am; that I should use the gifts of life and liberty for certain purposes, and that one of those purposes is to help make this world better, in any small way that I can, while I am here.
I believe this more personal experience, however one may articulate it, provided the central inspiration to the great progress in the human condition on Earth since Charlemagne knelt in the snow before the Pope. It is the symbol of faith behind which many people crossed the Atlantic to start a new life in a wilderness (and for the thousands who still cross oceans, rivers, and deserts to get here); it is the symbol of a caring love that rallied individuals to form and nourish neighborhoods across this continent; it is the symbol of human progress from which our ancestors found the courage to create, to fight for, and to die for a society conceived in liberty and a government designed to protect that liberty; it is the symbol that has challenged us to open that society, and to extend its protection to all those seeking to join it; and the Cross is the symbol of a responsibility to preserve, and to bequeath to our posterity, the blessings that we have been given.
To recognize all of this is not to say that the Cross, like all symbols, has not been perverted; sadly, its symbolism has been perverted in every age. But through all its misuse over the millennia, the Cross still remains such a fundamentally positive symbol of human progress and promise, as well as the fundamental symbol of one of the world’s great religions, that those who wish to destroy our civilization attack, censor or destroy this symbol wherever they encounter it.
So on this Easter weekend, with so much strife in this world, I will pause again to remember and accept that simple challenge that I see in the Cross: I can, and should, be better than I am.
In that spirit, I wish to each and every one of you a Happy Easter.