Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What's Your Sign? Though the Cross Reigns over Good Friday, Easter's Mystery Needs a Symbol of Its Own

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What's Your Sign? Though the Cross Reigns over Good Friday, Easter's Mystery Needs a Symbol of Its Own

Article excerpt

I DON'T USUALLY THINK OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION WHEN PASSING the sweets table, but there it was: A big rich dark chocolate cake adorned with white sugary latticework in the shape of--you guessed it--a cross.

It wasn't completely out of place, since I was at an ordination. But it brought to mind the perennial question of why, if you want to make something, anything, "Christian," all you have to do is slap a cross on it, and voila! I wonder if the Romans had any idea that their preferred instrument of torture would someday be imitated in cake frosting.

Actually, the early Christians might be a little surprised themselves. It took centuries for crosses to appear in places of worship, perhaps because the ancient church still had firsthand experience of their brutal purpose. Once the memory of a fellow Christian nailed to a cross faded, believers felt more comfortable bringing one to church. Since then Christian churches of almost every stripe have a cross. Catholic schoolchildren of a certain generation were even taught to draw one at the top of every sheet of paper.


Unfortunately the ubiquity of the cross, for all its importance, focuses our faith almost exclusively on Jesus' torture and execution. His resurrection, which is the end point of the Good News, gets lost in the shadow of the cross--though death's defeat admittedly lacks an easily identified instrument as its apparent victory. Easter's transformation is a bit hard to illustrate, much less draw at the top of an essay.

But it does lead one to wonder why we haven't sought an image that captures our Easter faith more fully. Scripture provides a captivating yet ambiguous one: an open, empty tomb. In fact, the oldest story of Easter, from the gospel of Mark, lacks the angelic figures of Matthew and Luke and the mysterious gardener of John. All Mark gives us is an empty hole in the ground, from which the women who came to anoint Jesus flee in terror.

Perhaps that's one reason why the empty tomb never caught on. Unlike the cross, concrete in its shape and purpose and cruelty, the empty tomb is ambiguous, open to interpretation. Depending on your point of view, it is either a curiosity to be explored--who isn't tempted to enter a cave? …

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