The most common symbol of the Christian religion is the cross. And, while many statues and necklaces and artistic renderings include a dying Christ figure , the kind you most often see is the empty cross. On this day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, I want to consider the significance of the empty cross.
- First, the empty cross reminds us that Christ lived. In spite of those who continue to challenge the historical evidence, there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth. He lived in a particular time and place, and he was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion. His existence caused the modern Western Calendar to be split into two distinctive parts based on the estimated year of his birth, and his life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a movement that has never been stamped out, equaled, or eclipsed.
- Second, it reminds us that Christ died. He was fully human in his capacity to feel pain, rejection, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and grief. Yet he also experienced joy, companionship, hope, love, compassion, laughter, and growth. He didn’t just grow old or fade into obscurity. He didn’t leave his life’s work unfinished, he didn’t compromise or change his message; he didn’t give up or start over with a different “crew.” Though he never staged a coup, or built up an arsenal, or rose to a seat of power or influence, this homeless, itinerant, soft-spoken rabbi was seen as enough of a threat to the leaders of his time that he was framed, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death.
- The empty cross also reminds us how he died. Modern crosses often look imposing and even triumphant, as they tower over a mega church parking lot, or hang on a chain of elegant silver, or stand in rows of chiseled rock in a military cemetery. “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” (I Cor. 15:55) But the torture before and during the crucifixion were brutal– bones were not broken, but they were pulled out of joint and then forced to bear the full weight of a bloody, swollen and bruised body of ripped muscles and exposed flesh. Heat caused the salty sweat mixed with blood to drip into his eyes, his open wounds, and around his nose and mouth, but he was unable to wipe any of it away. Flies gathered; he couldn’t keep them from buzzing or biting. Each breath was a torturous push and pull of the arms and body upon the nails holding him at an unnatural angle against a wooden bar that rubbed against his already raw back. And all of this was public; entertainment for the masses of hecklers, and those who were rejoicing in his humiliation and failure. There was nothing pretty or majestic about the cross on that day.
- The empty cross reminds us that Jesus was buried and put under Roman guard. His emaciated, bloody, barely recognizable remains were wrapped up and prepared with spices. Guards, whose lives depended on this body remaining in the tomb and undisturbed, were posted, and a huge boulder rolled into place to block entry to and exit from the tomb. Jesus didn’t spontaneously climb down off the cross, or waltz out of an air-conditioned cave.
- Finally, the empty cross reminds us that Jesus was the Christ–death could not stop him; the grave could not hold him. His victory was complete. He didn’t claw his way out of that tomb; he didn’t sneak out in the dead of night; he didn’t hobble into hiding for several weeks because he was only “mostly dead” of his torturous injuries. He arose, victorious, recognizable to those who knew him best; healed and full of power.
There are hundreds of reasons why we “cherish the Old Rugged Cross.” And, though the cross stands empty, our reasons are not. Hallelujah! Tomorrow, hundreds of millions of Christians will be celebrating the empty tomb. But for today, I want to celebrate the empty cross.