Monday, March 22, 2010

Contemplating Crosses

I go to the YMCA quite regularly now, not that you could tell from my physique. At the Y I am noticing a lot of tattoos these days, especially cross tattoos. Huge crosses sprayed across backs or smaller crosses on arms or chests. There are other religious symbols also: the Sanskrit character for AUM, the Chinese character for Tao, and even a Buddhist wheel of Dharma. But mostly crosses.

My great-grandfather was an artist who lived for a time with Native Americans in the American Southwest during the 1800's. He returned to his home in New England with sketchbooks filled with dozens of different types of "Indian crosses" that they used as designs on baskets, blankets and pottery.

The cross is a symbol with an ancient history in the world's cultures. The earliest cross known to archeologists is the Neolithic solar cross, also called the wheel cross. There is also the swastika, an ancient symbol that existed for 4000 years before the Nazis gave it an evil connotation. There is the tau cross of ancient Greece and the ankh of pharaonic Egypt.

The cross had symbolic power long before Jesus was ever nailed to a Roman cross. It is the intersection of two dimensions. Visual attention is drawn to the center while at the same time extending the visual lines to infinity in four directions. Contemplate the cross and you see the paradox of a center with no circumference. It is a symbol for eternity.

The cross of Christ is a picture of a man at the intersection of infinity. The crucifix is a picture of human suffering caused by human sin at the center of eternity. Man kills man in a futile attempt to rid himself of the divine in his midst.

This human suffering is divine suffering - a suffering that extends its arms to embrace the world, and whose cry is heard from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. Divine suffering embraces human suffering to bring about freedom from suffering.

The crucifix gives way to the empty cross in the Christian narrative. Man is gone and the cross remains - without the suffering but with the memory of suffering etched into the cross.

There is more in the symbol of the cross than can be communicated in words. That is the power of symbols. There is more in the cross than can be contained in carefully argued theories of atonement. 
That is why I prefer symbols to theologies. The cross is eternal; the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. I can see the original cross of Christ in the stars on a clear evening.

Maybe that is why men and women bear the image of the cross on their bodies. To carry in one's body what cannot be carried in one's mind.

Photo by the Hubble Space Telescope of the ancient globular star cluster NGC 6397.

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