Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Old Rugged Cross

When I was a boy my favorite hymn was "The Old Rugged Cross." I don't know why, really. It was written by a Methodist evangelist back in 1912 and it was a standard part of our Sunday hymn-singing repertoire. Singing was a big part of my faith growing up. My mother was in the choir, and the heritage of her side of the family was one of simple folk - mountain folk - who sang often. Sang all the time, really. There wasn't an aspect of living that they didn't sing about. History was sung and romance was sung and work, humor and suffering was sung. But most of all, they sung about their faith. Gospel singing, raising our voices up to the Lord, was probably the type of singing we did most.

We probably sang "The Old Rugged Cross" multiple times during Lent, and I'm sure other times of the year as well. The lyrics were simple… "On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame. And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain." There was something about the simplicity of it, the slow almost dirge-like character that really appealed to me. And it brought a tear to my eye just about every time I sang it.

From a young age it was also important to me to wear not just a cross, but a crucifix. There are times when I think I was preparing to become a Catholic my entire life. We never had crucifixes in our church or home or anywhere - that was a Catholic thing. In the Protestant church simple, plain representations were the norm. But I gave a lot of thought to it, and it was important to me not to just see the cross as symbol of our faith, but to be reminded of the sacrificial nature of it. Of Christ, and of His suffering and the gift he gave of life for us.

The importance of the cross in our lives as Christians, as a symbol of what it means to be a Christian would be truly difficult to measure. The cross was not embraced immediately as a symbol of Christ's redemptive suffering. And for good reason. It was a symbol of fear and pain for those punished justly or unjustly. It was a threat, the ultimate form of embarrassment and shame. And I'm sure for many of the first Christians, it brought memories not of Christ's triumph but of the sadness of His death.

St. Paul began to change the way we thought about the cross. He wrote of it often in his letters. He spoke that the cross would be made void if he dishonored Christ's teachings. In times of his own suffering and persecution he wrote of how he was nailed to the cross with Christ. He wrote about how those that persecuted Christians were not just enemies of Christ, but enemies of the cross. And he wrote that the only glory one should seek as a Christian was in the cross of Christ. There are many other examples. But Paul changed to way people thought about the cross. It changed from what the song called "an emblem of suffering and shame" to something completely different. It became an emblem of triumph. An emblem of the protective force of God. An emblem not just of sacrifice, but of God's absolute love for each of us.

Some years ago I brought the youth group I work with into the church one evening to talk about the cross. And one of the things we did was count the number of depictions of the cross in the building. I don't remember how many we found, but I know there were dozens. In this one, small building, dozens of depictions of the cross. In the Stations of the Cross. Above the Stations. On the chair backs. Topping the gates in the back.  On the tabernacle. On the old marble altar rail. A rosary cross on the statue of St. Anthony.  Another on the relief of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Again and again. If that doesn't speak clearly to the importance of the cross as symbol for us I don't know what does.

I have also been fascinated by the way the cross became a symbol of comfort. A symbol of safety. I think of all the people I've visited who were sick or suffering or dying and how many of them had a cross close by, or clung to rosary beads to the end, because of the great comfort they bring. I've become aware at times when I'm in prayer about some difficulty in life I have unconsciously reached up and taken my own crucifix between my fingers and gently stroke it. It is a calming influence, a comfort. I've worn out quite a few crucifixes that way. When I had a health scare a few months ago my crucifix was lost somewhere in transit between clinic to ambulance to hospital. Ultimately, that was the most distressing aspect of my experience.

I do believe in the power of the cross. History and my own experience has shown me that as symbol and as object the cross can change the world. It has been carried before us in physical battle and spiritual battle. It is symbolic of our efforts to ward off evil and bring hope. My prayer is that it always symbolize the outstretched arms of Christ - not in fear or surrender, but in welcoming. Outstretched not just in sacrifice, but in love.

Cling to the cross. Once, a symbol of fear and suffering and shame. For us today, it is a symbol of sacrifice and love. It symbolizes everything we are to be about as Christians. A people of that sacrifice, willing to take on burdens and give freely of ourselves in the service of others. And it's a symbol of love. The great love God has for us as His children, and the love of God we are all to share with one another. We are people of sacrifice. We are people of love. We should always carry the cross before us - either figuratively or literally - and exalt the great meaning it has for us as children of God.

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