August 5, 2016

Why I Don't Wear a Cross

As a child growing up in church, I strove to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. I attended Sunday school faithfully for years, but my teachers didn’t do much to help the process. That is, they filled my brain with theology, rules, and information, but not a lot of practical advice. We never (and I mean, never) discussed sex, dating, decision-making, discipleship, drug abuse, or any of the important real-world issues that affect the daily life of a 20th-century teenager in the big city. I wanted to live a righteous live worthy of my calling, but…how?

The physical trappings of faith confounded me. Jesus wore a robe and sandals, but I have to wear a tie and shiny shoes? Our Messiah worshiped in the open air and fed the poor, but we had to spend endless sums to repair our crumbling chapel? So many questions I dared not ask.
And then there’s the cross. Yes, the cross that represents the death of Christ. I knew so many people who wore a gold or silver cross on a chain, or as a pin on their lapel. It crossed my mind that I should have one, but it seemed like jewelry. And guys don’t wear jewelry. My Protestant friends ridiculed those silly Catholics for their many graven images, while they kissed and embraced their own.

But then my cousin Mario, my fashion role model, began to wear gold chains. So I bought a gold(ish) chain, which made me feel cool – for about five minutes. I hung a tiny cross from it, and the kids at school teased me for – yep – wearing jewelry. That pretty much settled the matter for me.

When I finally got serious about my faith in my late twenties, I studied the Bible in earnest for the first time. I read up on church history and traditions. And then I began to revisit the cross thing, and here’s what I found:

First, we have no record, in Scripture or in history, that the early Christians observed such a practice. For them, a cross had absolutely no religious significance. (If they employed an icon at all, it was the simple fish symbol that identified their meeting places.) Crucifixion was a Roman custom (not Jewish or Christian), and the cross itself was a pagan tool for administering capital punishments. Indeed the Romans labeled the early Christians as atheists, because they didn’t exhibit the normal trappings of religion.

Can you imagine adorning your outfit with a tiny electric chair? Me neither.

But wait! If we cling to a cross as a symbol of our faith, what did said cross look like? If we examine the Roman practice of crucifixion, Jesus didn’t carry the whole cross up that hill. He carried the crossbar, or patibulum, which was then lifted onto the vertical post. Thus our Lord died not on the “Latin” cross that we see in Medieval art, but rather on a “Tau” (the Greek letter) cross that resembles our letter T.

Of course, none of these things should be interpreted to mean that it’s wrong or sinful to wear a cross. But still it brings to mind my childhood days, when the gang members at my schools uniformly wore a cross on a chain, even as they tried to sell me drugs. As did prostitutes on Hollywood Blvd. And porn stars in action (don’t ask how I know that one). And rappers who sport it as bling, as they celebrate their abuses toward women. If a symbol doesn’t represent a reality (in this case, holy living), what good is it?

Don’t get me wrong: I hold no judgment for anyone who wears a cross today. But for me, it still feels like a cheap trinket. It seems like a talisman, a good-luck charm, not unlike a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover. I recall my minister telling me that a cross could bring me an extra measure of divine protection against criminals or evil spirits. Really? If we ascribe spiritual power to a physical object, it feels like a graven image, a token of sorcery.

Let’s worship the right things.

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