I recently saw a news article about a Catholic church whose outdoor cross was vandalized and their gracious response to it, and in the comments I saw a comment something like this: “What kind of religious symbol is that, anyway? A murdered man and the murder weapon. You people are so weird.” In all the responses of rude vilification and ineffective evangelism, I don’t think anybody took a moment to step back, adjust their point of view, and say, “Actually, she’s right.”
Yes, the cross is an exceedingly strange religious symbol.
Embarrassing, even. An instrument of humiliation and torture, after all. We celebrate a guy getting tortured two thousand years ago. Yay for us.
Seriously, have you ever stopped to consider how truly bizarre that must be for someone who hasn’t grown up with it?
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks.
Think about that. For Jews in the first century and for many other nations conquered by the Romans, a cross was a symbol of cruelty and subjugation. It must have been exceedingly offensive to have Christians celebrating it. For others, it must have been just plain dumb, like this woman who commented on this article. People are in the same place now, of considering Christian symbols offensive or of simply not having any basis of understanding about them.
I taught Christology and Soteriology, the study of Christ and the study of salvation, last semester at Continental Theological Seminary and in my preparation and teaching came to appreciate even more than ever before the bizarre and terrible and wonderful fact of the brutal murder of the Person we worship.
I was reading the Pentateuch at the time, those delightful and jolly books of Leviticus and Numbers, and I was also studying Hebrews, and in the combination of those two parts of the Bible, the concept of sacrifice and atonement in Leviticus suddenly came alive.
Leviticus is all about sin, human brokenness, human impurity, and how we who once walked freely with God in the world He created for us now have to perform all kinds of rituals of purity and atonement for sin in order even to approach the outskirts of His presence.
There is so much blood in Leviticus. Do we ever stop to think about how important blood is? The life of a living thing is in its blood. Blood carries oxygen, it carries DNA, it fights infection, it brings nutrients to a growing embryo; when it is shed, a person dies; when a donor gives her blood away, another person is given life. Shed blood is the price for sin, and it is the great and undeserved gift of God to cover sin.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes the atonement.”
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Instead of sacrificing their own blood for their sins, God provided for people to sacrifice the blood of a pure animal. That in itself was undeserved grace. But those animal sacrifices and all the purification rituals of Leviticus only worked for the moment in which they took place. A person could go away from the sacrifice of an expensive animal and promptly encounter something or do something that would make him impure and unworthy again, and he’d have to do it all over again. He was never permanently cleansed, and even when he was cleansed, he still was not pure enough to approach the very presence of God. There was no single sacrifice that would be enough, no blood pure enough and powerful enough.
Humans caused the problem, the sin that separated them from God, and so needed to atone for it, but no sacrifice performed by a human could ever be good enough.
Until a Person came who was both human and God. Human to fulfill humanity’s need to atone and Deity to be the one good enough to do it.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
We don’t celebrate the murder of some random guy who preached good things two thousand years ago. We celebrate the willing self-sacrifice of a hero, the life-giving donation of pure blood, the sacrifice that covers all sin once for all and brings us not only to the outskirts of God’s throne room but into the very presence of God Himself, no longer separated and soiled by sin but cleaned by the purity of that blood.
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23-24
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head, of Thine
While like a penitent I stand
And there confess my sin.
My soul looks back to see
The burden Thou didst bear
When hanging on the cursed tree
And knows her guilt was there.
Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice
And sing His bleeding love.
By Isaac Watts, 1674-1748