By Ellen Sims
Text: John 1:1-5
The cross is Christianity’s predominant symbol. But you can think of others. A flame represents the Holy Spirit; the chalice and bread reflect the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion; a manger suggests the Christchild; the Celtic trinity knot stands for a uniquely Christian theology. A fish was one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. The ichthus, which is the Greek word for fish, was a simple drawing of a fish that secretly identified one Christian to another during a period of persecution. The ichthus symbolism is based on the fact that the first letter from each word in the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior” creates an acrostic that spells ichthus (fish). But of course the cross is the key sign by which the world knows us.
However, that was not always the case. The cross on which Jesus died was, for at least the first three centuries, abhorrent to Christians. And some segments of Christianity never adopted that instrument of death and torture as their symbol. The history of the Reformed Christians of Hungary goes back to the late 1500s when some Protestants endured terrible persecution from authorities in the Roman Catholic Church, who used the cross as a “tool of persuasion.” Sometimes Reformed Christians were tortured until they kissed the cross—a sign they had returned to the Roman fold. So even to this day, Reformed Hungarian Christians view the cross not as a symbol of God’s grace but a painful reminder that their church was persecuted. Instead of a cross, they place a star on their steeples, vestments, and inside their churches.* The star, especially at Christmas, connects Christians to our scriptures—from the Gospel of Matthew’s Bethlehem star of unsurpassed brilliance to the bright morning star mentioned in Revelation. If you topped your Christmas tree with a star, you were part of a tradition that names Christ as the Light of the World.
And a star shines through Open Table’s logo. Early in our church’s history, we held two congregational meetings to generate ideas for a logo. One person early on insisted that we had to use the cross in some way because we are, after all, a Christian church and need to convey that clearly. I had not yet had many opportunities to preach and teach about the range of Christian theologies of the cross. I didn’t speak against using a cross in our logo in that moment—intending to share more complex meanings and associations of the cross later in the process. But the process quickly moved forward. I was greatly relieved when Todd, who designed our logo, interpreted the cross subtly, artfully. And the logo has evolved with us in barely perceptible but significant ways. In a recent update of the logo, the inconspicuous cross seems to have rays radiating outward rather than circles closing inward, giving the effect, to me, more of a source of light than that old instrument of death. I guess you could say our church’s symbol is a “cross” between a cross and a radiating light.
Some churches insist on inserting the cross into their telling of the nativity story, believing God planned all along for the baby to be eventually sacrificed for the sins of the world. They link the manger to the cross.** But if that had been God’s plan, why would God warn Joseph in a dream to take the babe to safety in Egypt? If Jesus’s job was to be the sacrificial lamb, couldn’t that have been accomplished sooner by letting the King’s henchmen kill him right after his birth? And what does it say about God if death is his solution to human frailty and failings?
Interpretations of the cross’s meaning vary. Consider what it means to stress Jesus as a living Light rather than a dying sacrifice. John’s Gospel connects the power that people experienced in Jesus to the original power of creation–even as we connect Jesus’s origins to the original burst of Light/Life in the universe. The Christ event seems congruent with a scientific understanding of the universe’s origins. Something about this Jesus convinced people that his wisdom was old and deep and elemental and saving. Something about this Jesus radiated life and creativity.
That guiding star in Matthew’s nativity story was not simply a light, but a light that leads and points Godward. Jesus was Light that lit up the Sacred for us.
* Clayton J. Schmit, Too Deep for Words: A Theology of Liturgical Expressions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 131.
** You can search “the manger and the cross” to find a branch of Christian commentary that figuratively takes the wood from the manger at Christmas to construct the cross and then preach a harmful substitutionary atonement theology. From one website I found an article titled “The Manger and the Cross” which understands Jesus as “born crucified” and depicts God in this troubling way: “Sometimes I hear even evangelicals say that God forgives us because He loves us, giving the impression that His love is the basis of our acquittal. Not so. Yes, He does love us, but apart from the death of Christ on our behalf He could not forgive us. We are saved not by God’s love, but because His love made provision by which His holiness could be appeased.” http://www.moodymedia.org/articles/what-gospel/