Body tattoos, necklaces, bumper stickers, churches, and gravesite tombstones all have what in common?
But what just is a cross for?
The truth is the cross has been used for different purposes in human history.
Before the cross became the primary symbol in Christianity for love and forgiveness, the cross was first used as a tool for capital punishment.
The ancient Persians, Seleucids, Carthaginians and Romans all used crosses to punish criminals of the state (i.e. crucifixion).
The cross itself was usually made from two large wooden beams, although some crucifixions were carried out with only one. The T-shaped cross became the most famous of the crosses due to the Jesus story.
To die on a cross was a horrific way to die.
The person’s arms were outstretched onto a crossbeam, either nailed or tied down somewhere between the elbows and hands, and their legs placed close together with their feet nailed toward the lower end of the second beam (which was placed into the ground).
Although extremely painful, the crucifixion alone didn’t usually kill a person immediately.
They died from one or a combination of medical issues: failure of organs, poor blood circulation, and asphyxiation.
For people in the ancient Near East, a cross meant dying a slow excruciating death.
This is what history tells us is what happened to the historic person Jesus of Nazareth.
He died on a cross.
The reality of a crucifixion is much more involved than the nice neat Sunday school telling.
Strangely enough, for the first followers of Jesus, his death on a Roman cross, while shocking, meant something good. Not in a sadistic kind of way. But in a humbling sobering grateful kind of way.
How could this be?
How the tortuous death brought about through crucifixion be a good thing?
Somehow on the cross, they believed the God of the entire universe demonstrated a disposition toward all humanity that in previous generations was unheard of.
When Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they do not realize what they are doing,” they believed God was in some sense demonstrating forgiveness to the entire world in the death of Jesus.
All the terrible, corrupt, unjust, and deeply selfish things human beings have been doing toward each other since the dawn of time was somehow being dealt with on a cross.
Elaborate theological systems of thought attempt to explain how Jesus death makes sense, but the quick point I make here is that in the person Jesus of Nazareth and through his death on a Roman cross, they believed the God of the universe loved and forgave the world.
Jesus died for people.
But not just some people.
For the early Christians, Jesus’ willingness to die on a Roman cross without putting up a fight or rallying his followers to wage war on the Romans was not only an expression of mercy but became for them an example on how to treat their enemies.
Instead of an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth,
Instead of playing the same game of violence,
Instead of retributive justice,
They believed Jesus taught them to act out a merciful restorative justice.
Instead of hating and condemning their enemies,
They believed Jesus called them to love and pray for their enemies.
This was unheard of.
Gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East did not model this kind of love.
Neither did they ask human beings to love others this kind of way.
Study ancient mythologies of the world. It just didn’t happen.
Jesus died for people.
He once said, “If anyone wants to follow me, they should pick up their own cross as they follow me.”
Following Jesus meant not just being kind to people.
It meant being willing to die for enemies.
But also actually.
That is how Jesus defined love.
That is how Jesus defined mercy.
This was not normal for most people.
In fact, this was a brand new way of being human.
And so the tool that was once used to take away life took on new meaning as a symbol of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness.