Why are symbols so important to us? Specifically, why are symbols important to us as Christians?
Many symbols, like the anchor, pomegranate, dove and lily — just a few among hundreds — draw their significance from Scripture. For example, in Hebrews 6:19 — “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” From the embroidery on our baptismal gowns to the carvings on our headstones, our lives as Christians are filled with symbols.
But, sometimes a symbol is more than a symbol. Sometimes a symbol is a window that opens from within our soul, to reveal a truth beyond ourselves, beyond this world.
This is true for no symbol in Christianity more so than the crucifix — the cross bearing the body of our crucified Lord.
Many see the crucifix — particularly in its more realistic representations — as gruesome, macabre, even obscene or abusive to contemporary sensibilities, far-removed from the context and meaning of our salvation.
But, if we view the crucifix through the lens of the love that caused God to become flesh, to walk to Golgotha and take up the cross for us, it becomes not only beautiful, but absolutely essential to our walk with Christ.
To understand how these carvings of metal and wood become more than just metal and wood, we need to go back to the Old Testament, to our reading from Numbers 21.
The Israelites have fallen back into ingratitude and impatience, with both Moses and God. To get them back on track, God sends poisonous snakes to afflict the wayward Israelites.
The people repent, Moses prays for them, and the Lord sends Moses this answer:
“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
On first blush, looking to a golden statue of a snake for healing seems idolatrous. But, the Israelites were not praying to the snake. They were lifting up their eyes, in obedience to God’s word, and setting their eyes there to focus their faith in God, and in God’s power to heal.
To seek God’s healing, they had to look up to Him, past the symbol of their sin and weakness.
But, of course, this is not the last time the Israelites have a falling-out with God. The God-sent retribution of the snakes is symbolic in itself of the impossible legalism of Mosaic Law. And the Israelites have about 1,400 more years of trying, and failing, to live up to that legalism, and of offering up blood offerings in atonement.
We remained as afflicted by our sins as the Israelites were by those snakes. That was until the Incarnation, when Christ became flesh to lift us above sin and death. In his death on the cross, Jesus overcame sin and death, and purchased for us life eternal.
In John 8, Jesus tells us this redemption will occur when He is lifted up on the cross.
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
Earlier, in John 3:14-17, Jesus directly links his own crucifixion with the Old Testament story from Numbers of the snake being lifted up in the desert:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
We are saved at the cross. Christ takes up our sin, and our death, and nails it to the cross in His body. And, we must look to the cross to see the path we are to follow — to see the path by which we are saved.
Looking at the crucifix with contemporary, worldly eyes, we see ugliness, suffering and death. But, looking at the crucifix through the lens of Christ’s love for us — the love we’re called to pour out for others — we see beauty, victory and life eternal.
Even in St. Paul’s day, when people still were being nailed to literal crosses, the symbol of crucifixion didn’t immediately call to mind beauty, victory and life. But, St. Paul reminds us, in 1 Corinthians 1:17-19, to look not with the eyes of this world:
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
The message of the cross, in all its terrible beauty, cannot be captured with wisdom, eloquence and worldly intelligence. To the world the cross makes no sense. But, for those who look up to the crucified Lord for salvation and comfort, it is the very power of God.
When we come to the foot of the cross, we stand there not as aghast spectators, separated from our Lord by gulfs of time and distance. We come to stand with Mary, and weep at the death of her Son. We stand next to St. John, and feel the empty, gnawing pain of loss. We stand at His feet, seeing His precious blood run in streams, poured out in love for us. We see the nails tearing into flesh. Into those feet, that walked so far, to love and save. Into those hands, that healed so many, and lifted up the dead. Muscles quiver. Bones cry out. And there, above the dirt, the blood and the torn flesh, ringed in more blood poured out by a crown of thorns, are His eyes. They look into our soul. Loving us. Calling us. Forgiving us. Crying for us. For us. Who nailed Him there.
We come there, to the shadow of the cross, to feel His love for us. It is a love that aches. It is a love that feels all our shame, and loves us through it all. It is a love that cannot be contained in mortal body, and must be poured out through wounds that both end life and forever conquer death.
Seventeen centuries after the Apostle Paul, another St. Paul called us there, to the shadow of the cross and the beauty of the Passion. It was St. Paul of the Cross, Italian mystic and founder of the Passionists, who gave us these words:
O souls! seek a refuge, like pure doves, in the shadow of the crucifix. There mourn the Passion of your divine Spouse, and drawing from your hearts flames of love and rivers of tears, make of them a precious balm with which to anoint the wounds of your Saviour.
We are crows, washed into pure doves by the power of Christ’s blood. His blood sets us afire with His passion. We can cry here, at the cross. Tears of sorrow. Tears of joy.
And then, there is one last wound to anoint. It is the spear wound in His side, gushing out blood and water. It is the wound that cries out “It is finished.” It is the wound that beckons us upward. You see, unlike the snake on the pole, it is not enough to simply look upon the crucifix. No. It calls us upward, into it. Onto it. Into the outstretched arms of our Savior.
It is there, nailing our ego, our pride, our hatred and fear onto the cross, and accepting the outstretched arms of our Savior, that we truly embrace the life-changing nature of our Baptism.
As Paul tells us in Galatians 2:20:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
We come to the crucifix not just to see it as a symbol. We come to the crucifix to let our spirit climb its hard wood. To touch the wounds of Christ. To be crucified with Him. To die to ourselves and emerge something new.
We climb, because we are called. We climb, because we must. We climb, because, as St. Rose of Lima pointed out, “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.“
Lord Christ, we come to your cross to bask in the love you pour out for us there. You’ve called us to take up our cross and follow you. Give us strength to reach Golgotha. You took on flesh to suffer with and for us. Let us anoint your precious wounds with our tears. You gave up your life to save our souls. Let us die to anything that stands between us and you. You ascended the cross to show us the way. Let us climb after you, to be crucified with you, in your loving arms, that we may rise with you, new and eternal beings, made to love and serve you and all God’s children. Amen.