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Cross My Heart

“I have a complaint to make.” The comment was made by a member of our church who periodically drops in on me Tuesday mornings. The twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face signaled that this “complaint” was more of an observation or a conversation starter than an actual grievance. “We must have been the most “crossed” church around on Easter Sunday morning,” he said. “I counted at least four!” I thought back to our service and found that I couldn’t disagree.

In the grand scheme of things, our worship space tends toward a rather spare aesthetic. We have seasonal banners and various visuals that adorn the table in front of the pulpit. But compared to some of our high church brethren, there’s not much to catch the eye many Sundays. Easter Sunday was different, though. We had white ribbons emanating out from the cross permanently affixed to the wall behind the pulpit. We had an Easter banner with cross emblazoned with colour and light along with another banner with a smaller cross alongside a dove. There’s the glass windows in the shape of the cross on the side wall. And then there was crude wooden cross that we used in our Maundy Thursday service at the front. As part of our Easter service each year, we all come forward and filled the cross with flowers. So, yes, there were crosses.

I’ve been thinking about crosses today. We Christians make an awful lot out of what is on the face of it a rather unimaginative shape (two intersecting lines, a lowercase letter “t”) at best or a reminder of a primitive and gruesome mode of torture (at worst). But we love our crosses. I love my crosses. At least I sure seem to, based on a quick survey of my immediate surroundings.

Hanging from the mirror in my car is a rosary that I bought last year in a bustling Old Jerusalem marketplace.

On the walls and shelves of my study, there is:

  • a small metal cross hanging on one wall that my wife picked up for me in a German church a few years ago
  • a handmade cross given as a gift from a church member sitting on one bookcase
  • a cross my daughter made out on a discarded 2×6 out of some nails and yarn one afternoon adorning the top of a filing cabinet
  • a metal cross extending out of a dove fashioned out of nails perched atop another bookcase
  • a collection of sketched crosses that my daughter has drawn over the years as she attempts to endure her father’s sermons

Around my neck is another rosary, this one a wooden Orthodox version given to me by a young Syrian friend after their arrival in Canada last year.

IMG_7624On one side of my desk is a beautiful prayer rope that a good friend recently made me with a Celtic cross at the end of it. In the center, a chi and ro, the two Greek letters that historically symbolize Christ the King, surrounded by human figures joining hands in community.

Beside it is a little bowl full of tiny olive wood crosses I was given after worshiping at a Palestinian Christian church last year.

Off to the other side, a tattered copy of a bulletin from a Good Friday service I attended at an Anglican church last week. On the cover, a cross. And on that cross hangs skeletal Jesus, ribs protruding, face turned down in anguish, nails driven through groaning flesh.

Everywhere I turn, crosses.

It’s a strange thing, when you think about it, this Christian fascination with adorning our bodies and our spaces with what was an instrument of execution. It speaks to the salvific weight we attach to said instrument, of course, even though, strictly speaking, it would be more theologically accurate to attend to the empty tomb. The Apostle Paul did mention something about how if Christ is not raised from the dead we’re still in our sins and rather to be pitied for imagining otherwise. That’s actually the point of Easter. It’s the empty tomb, not the cross, that does the most theological work. But I suppose empty tombs are kind of unwieldy to wear around your neck, and they probably don’t make for very impressive tattoos.

Paul also talked once about how we “always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” He was talking about persecution, not interior decorating or body art, of course, but it’s an interesting turn of phrase. We always carry around the death of Jesus. I thought of the phrase as I looked at dying Jesus dangling off my car mirror this morning, as I fingered the Syrian rosary around my neck, as my hands ran over the prayer rope my friend made me. I wonder if, on some level, we carry Jesus’ death around with us as a simple reminder of the price of peace and the cost of reconciliation. A God who would love us to his end is a shatteringly beautiful thing, and we can’t take our eyes off these physical tokens that gesture toward it.

Perhaps we also carry Jesus’ death around with us as a reminder that death waits for us, too. T.S. Eliot once said that human beings cannot bear too much reality, so we flee from it. Yes, we do. Perhaps now, more than ever, in these comfortable, trivial, endlessly distractible and antiseptic times. But die we must, and die we will. And no matter how desperate we are to avoid this truth, there is something deep within us that hungers for a hope that our death, like the death of the one that all our crosses speak of, is not the end. Maybe all these crosses represent a determination (or at least a desire) to cease our fleeing and to face reality—our own and God’s—with all the clarity we can muster.

In the end, the very fact that we love our crosses so much—that we have taken a crude symbol proclaiming a horrifyingly brutal reality, and refashioned it as art—is only possible because God has done the same: taken something ugly and turned it toward beauty.


The image above is called Body of Christ by Linda Witte Henke, and is taken from the 2016-17 Christian Seasons Calendar

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Love the last line – God has done the same: taken something ugly and turned it toward beauty. Only God could do that, and still can. Making beauty from ashes. It is strange when we think about it – about our love for crosses, but it is humbling what our peace with God cost. Great post.

    April 19, 2017
    • Thanks very kindly, Russell.

      April 20, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I no longer have the book to be able to accurately quote from it but I believe it was in Rabbi David Volpe’s work,”Why Faith Matters” in defending icons and iconography he spoke of a boy who used to go into a forested area bringing some kind of icon/adornment with him so as to be better able to pray with God. When confronted by an elder Rabbi who was concerned that the boy might be displaying idolatrous tendencies that could hamper his relationship with God, he gently reminded the boy that God was everywhere and he did not need to use any form of medium in order to commune with the Eternal. The boy then said something to the effect that while he understood God was everywhere and could find him (the boy) anywhere, the boy came to this space with his Icon so that he could find God.

    Sacred spaces and icons exist, for our benefit, so that we may find God.

    As for the phenomena of cross wearing, Christian body art and finger pointing towards the heavens, sadly I feel, more often then not, these public displays say more about the person engaged in these activities then they do about a true effort to live a life of faith, in Christ.

    April 21, 2017
    • Great story. I’m with that little boy…

      April 21, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    ….”A God who would love us to his end is a shatteringly beautiful thing”… I can’t think of a more perfect way to begin contemplative prayer. Thank you, Ryan.

    April 24, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, I believe I have a word for you. Take care that one of the crosses that adorn your place of worship shows the crucified form of Our Lord. We cannot lose sight of the fact that God’s everlasting covenant with us, his infinite love, his infinite mercy, requires from us a humble and contrite heart.

    Spirits of contrition and humility are the immediate graces from sincere worship at the foot of a cruciformed Christ. There may be other ways to be sure but I know what I tell you is true.

    April 24, 2017
    • I have a few empty crosses and a few crucifixes in my personal orbit. Both draw me to the necessary responses of contrition and humility that you rightly remind us of here. Thank you.

      April 25, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        In love I tell you, an empty cross means nothing. A cruciformed cross and and an empty tomb say everything that needs to be said.

        April 25, 2017
      • An empty cross means nothing to you, perhaps.

        April 25, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    What it means to me is of lesser importance. What it means to either the “building up” or “tearing down” of faith, is what matters.

    The empty cross, compromises the Crucifixion, robs it of it’s true meaning and leaves it’s
    adherents with a weakly rooted faith (at best) that ultimately descends into idolatry.

    Micah tells us that humility is the essential predisposition, in order for us to walk with the Lord. True faith IS, “Walking with the Lord”. Without true humility there is no true faith.

    True humility is the grace that leads to faith. Faith claimed as grace that does not reveal a humble and contrite heart, is a lie.

    Regular examination of conscience, (at least once a week) with Christ, through Christ is the only true path to the graces that lead to true humility, that lead to true faith.

    Salvation has been and always will be about, conquering sin. Only a cruciformed Christ, conquers sin. Only a repentant sinner, learns true humility, leading to true faith, leading to salvation.

    We could talk at great length about the many blasphemous uses of an empty cross. What would it matter? It is but the blind leading the blind. If their salvation is truly our concern then let us first,” take the log out of our own eye so that we may then later take the beam out of theirs.”

    April 26, 2017
    • Are you suggesting that because the worship space in our church doesn’t have a crucifix that I (we) have a “weakly rooted faith” and are in danger of “descending into idolatry?” That we have “compromised Christ’s crucifixion?” That our sin has not been conquered?

      Are you saying that examination of conscience requires an image of Jesus on the cross? That humility is impossible without this? That an understanding of and solidarity with Christ’s suffering is impossible without this?

      Are you saying that we are engaging in blasphemy?

      I want you to think seriously about the questions above, because these are pretty strong claims, Paul. This seems like an awful lot to hang on whether or not someone has the right image in their worship space. Indeed, it would not be difficult to make the argument that if your answer to the questions above is “yes,” the temptation toward idolatry points in the opposite direction.

      April 26, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, I think you should step back from thinking that I am your accuser. I am your brother in Christ. I am simply trying to alert you to the dangers of certain kinds of iconography.

    Some help us focus and mediate on the depth of our relationship with Christ, the depth of brokenness as a result of sin, the depth of our dependence on His mercy, the depth of humility required to obtain the graces necessary to keep us peaceful and joyful but yet resolute. To withstand the constant assault of our own human frailty and the collective assaults of the unbelieving society that we live in. Spend 15 minutes alone in front of a cruciformed Christ, making your most concentrated effort at communion and then tell me something different didn’t happen. Tell me then your Spirit wasn’t moved differently then it had been before.

    We are at war, brother. 🙂 And we need the right kind of weapons.

    In retrospect Perhaps I should have spent more time explaining why a cross without a crucified Christ upon it, in of itself is insufficient. I thought I had….surely the many cultural misappropriations that you allude to in this post stand as reason enough.

    When our enemies appropriate our symbols, our symbols are mostly powerless.

    As a friend and brother I owe you that understanding.

    April 26, 2017
    • I’m sorry for misinterpreting your words. I don’t see things the way that you do here, but you’re right, you are my brother, not my accuser.

      April 26, 2017

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