I find myself sitting in the St. Stephen’s nave, staring at a twenty-foot cristus rex hanging on the wall behind the sanctuary. This cross with its superimposed risen and ruling Christ was carved and hand-painted by a local artist. Like the block glass windows, also in the nave, the cross is mostly blue, matching the cool severity of the concrete walls. The building itself is a contemporary work of art – cold in that exquisite way that ushers one interiorly into the caverns of one’s own soul.
I suspect some people might confuse the cross for a crucifix. It is not a crucifix. Christ is both alive and wearing a crown. His unnaturally shortened arms are stretched ever-outward, mocking the death cross.
But the cross cannot be mocked, can it? I wonder to myself, could this be right? Jesus risen yet still on the cross? No hands dripping blood, no side-wounds of crimson. Nothing bloody at all on this risen Lord Jesus.
The cross, and I’m not quite sure what the cross – any cross – symbolizes, anymore, so ubiquitous has it become. You can find crosses everywhere: as jewelry around peoples’ necks, tattooed as art on their skin, painted as street art on the sides of warehouses, on billboards, on books, on rings, even on mountainsides.
The cross, does it symbolize death or life? Defeat or victory? And as I grow older and draw closer to my own death, I wonder, whose cross is it, anyway? The ring that I wear on my right hand encircled with tiny crosses is a nod to my priesthood, so I reach out with my left hand to touch the ring in physical contemplation. The ring is an icon drawing me into spiritual contemplation – contemplation of the cristus rex so dominant in front of me. Is that Jesus on the cross, or is it me?
Take up your cross and follow, Jesus told those within earshot, myself included. Paul later confessed to doing just that, carrying his own cross. I have been crucified with Christ, he wrote, and it is no longer I who lives but Christ lives in me. Cristus Rex, Christ living supremely in me. One alive, the other dead.
Yet, ubiquity has degraded the cross and eroded its meaning. Which is it? The almost iridescent glow of gold, or earthy and rough-hewn? Good Friday wood with rusty nails, the cross still means death. Christ’s invitation to walk into to death.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return … the priest intones as she scrawls dust onto your Ash Wednesday forehead in the pattern of a cross. Ash Wednesday’s is the very same cross with the very same oil used at your baptism, when you were marked as Christ’s own forever.
It is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me. Lives, as in alive, not dead, inside me. And outside of me. In my prayer and in my life. Present tense. Lives.
Yet, how many people wear crosses as a paradoxical symbol of life? Even gaudy displays of gold and emeralds and diamonds, all pulled dirty from the earth as mortal, yet cut, polished and set as though eternal? Imagine Jesus in all his earthly wanderings seeing the instrument of his death as jewelry? I cannot imagine what he would have thought, yet – and it is true – all the crosses in all the world mean both something significant and nothing at all. It is not the image of the cross tattooed on the arm that matters, but the image of the cross tattooed across the soul.
Christ as king, a paternalistic image, some will say. Yet, even in today’s world we understand instantly what calling Christ “king” means. Christ as king, alive and not dead, not even dying. Christ superimposed alive and supreme upon the symbol of his own death, and I see myself tucked somewhere between that living Christ and the cross itself, somewhere between hope and despair, life and death, victory and defeat. Only now I know, it is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me.