by Bakho Jatmiko
Many years ago I heard a story from a Christian about his experience related to the cross. He narrated that one night he heard a strange noise from his backyard that woke him up. When he opened the window to investigate, he found nothing. Feeling confused, he closed the window and tried to go back to sleep, only to be disturbed by the same noise. Again, he tried to find the source, only to be disappointed. This happened several times until he decided to form the shape of a cross using a palm leaf rib, which he then threw out the window. The strange noise never came back again.
The cross has several meanings to different people. For some Christians, the cross is not merely the means of redemption used by Christ more than 2000 years ago. It is believed to be a holy, spiritual symbol with spiritual and mystical powers that brings miracles, healing, deliverance, and supernatural protection.
The cross has existed throughout human history, with varying shapes, functions, and meanings that changed according to the context in which the cross was used. Long before Christianity, in ancient Egypt, the “ankh” was used as a hieroglyphic symbol that signified life. During the Roman empire, the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. It was not used as the official symbol of Christianity until the end of the persecution through emperor Constantine. The cross was also viewed as a popular medieval weapon—the sword—and became associated with the crusading knights and colonial imperialism.
Following the era of the Roman Empire, Christianity began to grow on the European continent. The cross that became a symbol of Renaissance movement was negatively associated with oppression, slavery, and imperialism among certain groups. In modern times, the cross has been adopted in the flags of many predominantly Christian countries. However, there is also a dark side of the usage of the cross. The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for using burning crosses to terrorize African-Americans. The cross has also been viewed by some as a symbol of violence.
The history of the cross reminds us of the importance of correct understanding in Jesus statement “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). What we mean by “taking up the cross” will be determined by our understanding of what the cross is. Often times, the meaning of the cross is culturally conditioned. What the cross means to some may not be applicable to others. We cannot assume that every Christian, regardless of their location, think the same way about the cross and what it means to take it. This does not mean that we are hopelessly without a central message. It just means that we have to engage in deep reflection and active cultural engagement in order for the cross to be made relevant to our audiences.
Bakho Jatmiko is Academic Dean of Indonesia Nazarene Theological College