I have a hard time with the use of the cross as the central symbol of Christianity. Years ago one of my campus ministry colleagues suggested the towel might be more appropriate. Imagine having a towel, like the one Jesus tied around his waist to wash the disciples’ feet, hanging over the altar in our places of worship. It would symbolize the central commandment of Christendom: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Instead of marching into holy wars with the cross emblazoned on shields and sword handles, instead of carrying it into dark rooms to ward away the monsters, instead of forcing it on people as a symbol of being acceptable, we would carry towels. They would be soft, meant to dry feet and wipe away tears. There would be no sharp edges on them at all.
But then I remember the high crosses of Ireland. When Rosean and I visited friends in Dublin we explored holy sites. We saw firsthand a couple of the ancient, towering, carved stone crosses preserved on the grounds of medieval churches and abbeys. They were crosses enclosed in circles. Symbols and images from Old and New Testament stories adorned them, and a very small Christ, either standing with arms stretched out in crucifixion or sitting the throne of judgment, sat at their center. He was tiny, and around him danced the whole of creation.
These crosses speak to me, more than any other crucifixes I have ever seen, of the profound sacrifice at the center of our beliefs – the libation of ego, of personhood, of self-focus in all its forms that is the death of Christ on the cross. And they remind me of the line from our second reading today, Paul speaking to the Corinthians, goading them into unity with these words: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18)
I am reminded that we were not called into discipleship by a conquering warlord. Yes, Jesus was a troublemaker on his way to dismantle empire when he called his first disciples there by the Galilean sea. But he wasn’t bringing a fight, he was bringing surrender. We have to learn this again and again – or at least I do. Conquering by force only perpetuates the same old dynamics, where one party wins and the other loses and neither is transformed by love.
Love. Using consensus in decision making rather than the majority rule; listening to the stories of the people we are trying to aid rather than blindly throwing resources at them; divesting ourselves of power and giving over control while having faith in the central message we have been communicating by word and action, this is the foolishness of the cross. Being willing to change our beliefs, being willing to learn something new, opening our hearts and our minds, this is the cross’s message.
Without the cross the towel is just one more symbol of empire. So let’s tie it around our waists with a new understanding. Let us go out to accompany others in the ways they tell us they need, and with the expectation of losing ourselves to new understandings rather than of taking control.