Many Christians around the world venerate the cross as a symbol of our salvation. However, not everyone views the cross through the same lens. One day, I was walking with a Jewish colleague, talking about our favorite parts of our beautiful 130 plus acre campus. Suddenly, my colleague shared, “I don’t like our chapel.” I was shocked but kept my composure and asked, “Why?” She responded, “The cross on top of the chapel is in your face.”
Realizing that my image of the cross differed from her image of the cross, I transitioned into pastoral mode and said, “Help me understand why the cross is offensive to you.” She explained that for her and her ancestors the cross represented a long history of anti-Semitism, persecution, and suffering. I did not try to refute her. Afterall, she was right. We talked for a while longer, and when we finished, she felt good about the conversation. I thanked her for her candor.
Her comments remained with me, even though when I look at the cross, I still see it as a symbol pointing to the salvation of Christ despite many Christian’s abuses of the glorified symbol. Nevertheless, I realize as a Christian that I represent the cross. Therefore, my behavior towards others gives the cross its meaning. If I treat others with Christlike charity and love, then they may see the cross in its positive light. Consequently, the reverse is true: if I treat others with disrespect and hatred, then they may project that onto the cross.
The tradition of Holy Cross Day originates in 326 CE when Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During her pilgrimage, she discovered the True Cross. Subsequently, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built at the sight of the discovery. After the church was dedicated, the cross was divided into thirds with a portion remaining in Jerusalem, a portion taken to Rome, and the final portion taken to Constantinople.
The cross as a symbol transitioned from a scornful reminder of capital punishment in ancient Rome to the realization that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. As Christians, we venerate the cross as one of our holiest symbols. Sadly, the cross has been hijacked by hate groups and white supremacists. Therefore, we as Christians must live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so the true light of the Holy Cross may shine through the darkness.
Just as Jesus responded to his persecutors with love and forgiveness, we must follow suit. Just as Jesus lived among us as one who serves, we must follow suit. Just as Jesus fed the hungry and served the marginalized, we must follow suit.
However, more is required.
As Christians, we must realize the pain our ancestors caused others through anti-Semitism, imperialism, and enslavement and seek forgiveness. We must reach across the aisle and break down the barriers that keep us apart. We possess the opportunity to enter dialogue with our neighbors from different faith traditions. We can come to see how we share the core values of justice and mercy. Maybe we can even come to envy some of their traditions. This does not require us to surrender our faith in Christ or to hide our crosses. We just need to know that others will interpret the meaning of the cross by the way we carry it.
Turning to our children, how do we teach them that the meaning of the cross ultimately becomes fully developed by the way we treat others? Of course, we want our children to embrace Christianity. We want them to walk as Christ walked. This may require us as parents and caretakers to go against the grain of the secular message that self is above all else. We may have to double down on teaching our children to follow the example of Jesus in all aspects of their lives – to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In teaching this, we must come to terms that Jesus expanded the definition of neighbor to make it universally inclusive.
When my colleague and I finished our conversation that day. I went into the sanctuary of our chapel and prayed. I realized, as Christians, we may venerate the Holy Cross by kneeling before it and saying prayers. However, the best way to demonstrate our veneration of the cross is to emulate Jesus who died on it.