If you walk into a very or somewhat traditional Western Christian church, the focal point of the worship space will most likely be — in some way, shape, or form — a cross or a crucifix. The cross is, after all, the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith, so one should expect it to occupy a central symbolic position. But where does our contemplation of the cross truly lead us?
I suspect that for most people, the cross provides a connection to the suffering and death of Jesus. Much Christian piety derives its meaning from the Passion of Christ. It is an understandable piety, and an important piety, for it helps connect us to one of the truth’s represented by the crucifixion: that God in Christ suffered with the suffering of humanity, taking that suffering into God’s self. In a world where we, as human beings, are often in touch with our suffering and the suffering of others, it is a powerful thing to recognize that God does not stand apart from that suffering but enters into it deeply.
Yet, despite the power of this truth, we must acknowledge that the kind of suffering Christ experienced on the cross was not unique. The New Testament itself witnesses that Jesus was not the only one crucified on that day. And, indeed, we know from history that crucifixion was a favorite method of execution in the ancient Roman Empire. Thousands of people were killed in the same way Jesus was killed. In that sense, the crucifixion of Jesus is not a unique event, but rather a well-known example of the cruelty and injustice inflicted by human beings in power upon those who are not in power. The story of the cross is very much the story of humanity. And, as we contemplate the suffering of Jesus, perhaps we get that, and perhaps that is one of the reasons it is so powerful for us.
And, if the story of Jesus had ended with his death, it is unlikely that the Christian movement would ever have begun. The story of Jesus would simply have been a story of another Roman execution in the Jewish territory and the story of a movement that dissolved in disappointment and grief over the death of its founder.
What gave (and gives) the Christian movement its power is not the Passion of the Christ but, rather, the Resurrection of the Christ. For it is the experience and proclamation of the Christian community that Christ is Risen that is the one new thing that the Christian tradition offers, an experience that is unique to the Christian movement. And, it was the experience of Christ as Risen that breathed new energy into the followers of Jesus and gave birth to what came to be known as Christianity. I would suggest that it is exactly this experience of the Risen Christ, this one new thing, that is meant to give structure and meaning to those of us who seek to be Christ’s followers.
A number of theologians and spiritual teachers have pointed out that as human beings, our consciousness tends to be structured by suffering and death and/or by the fear of suffering and death. It insinuates itself into almost everything we do, casting a long shadow over our lives — one that we are often not aware of. The Resurrection invites us into a different paradigm, offering us an opportunity to be delivered from the fear of suffering and death by removing its seeming ultimate power over us. In the mystery of the Risen Christ, we discover that death is not a reality for God — that in God, we remain held in life even beyond what seems to us the finality of biological death. When we can truly get our minds and hearts around this mystery, we can begin to appreciate how living in this paradigm can so change the way in which we live our lives. Living deeply as Resurrection people can truly lead us into a freedom that is transformative, for it leads us into a consciousness structured by unlimited life in God.