Sunday, May 07, 2006

icons for life and death

I was pondering today the fact that Christians use the cross as an icon of the Christian faith, and finding it insteresting. To me it isn't so much the cross that's important, because anyone can die. But an empty tomb just doesn't make a very good icon, I guess. I can see why the cross was chosen--it's gloriously gruesome and reminds us that God came here and died. Plus it's defiantly against Judaism, to whom it is an outrage to think the Messiah would die on the cross. And it also elicits some nice, controlling emotions like guilt for the suffering we caused.

But I was thinking how interesting it is that it's so much easier to iconize (idolize) death than life. It's what we do in our media so often, with all sorts of movies about romantic war heroes and such. When someone dies they're a martyr, and we can remember them as an icon for some laudable act. But when someone's hard to make that an icon. It's still going on. It can't be captured in an image or a trite phrase.

I think that's what Christianity should be about--and yet, we make an icon of the cross, the part we can control, the part that's finished, the death. But what do we make of the life, the Living Presence of God, the fact that God isn't done living and acting in the world? We can't make an icon of that...but it's all too easy to forget.


Paul said...

I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple days, and while I don’t want to go into to a long discourse, I do have a couple thoughts to put out there.

I’ve never thought of the cross as an “in your face” symbol to the Jews or a guilt producing and controlling icon that remind us what miserable wretches we are. Not hard to see the connections and that that could be people’s experience, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest the cross was overtly used for those purposes. Have you come across thoughts like that in any church history stuff?

I wonder about whether the cross and the resurrection can or should be separated. Maybe they’re one and the same thing. The passage that has always intrigued me here is in Philippians 3.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

I wonder about the idea of life coming out of death. Seems to be what happened as a result of Jesus’ death. And I wonder if what Paul is saying in this passage is that he wants to know Christ’s resurrection power in his life so that he can have the power/strength to enter into Christ’s suffering which will bring him life. It all seems to be mixed up together. The question that comes to mind is how would he attain resurrection through sharing in Christ’s suffering? Maybe by giving his life to others, entering into their suffering as Christ entered into ours, entering the suffering of the powerless, poor, alienated, downtrodden, in someway brings life.

What’s funny is that as you are struggling with the symbol of the cross, lately I have found myself being drawn towards it. Christ calls us to take up our cross…daily. The cross reminds me of this cross, my cross, this call…invitation…command. The cross reminds me that if I take the idea of following Christ seriously, I better not be surprised to end up following him to a cross. That seems to be where love led Jesus, and if I love well, there might be a good chance that’s where it will lead me. Of course, when we get there I may bolt…like a few other followers seemed to have done. We’ll see. But if I do, I think the resurrected Christ may come looking for me, offer to make me some breakfast, invite me into some intimate conversation, ask me if I love him…which I really do…and then invite me to keep following. And guess where we may end up at again…and again…and again. But maybe somewhere along the line I’ll realize that it’s not about the cross, like you suggest, but about being in love with and living life fully with Jesus , and that somehow the living and dying all get tangled up together, and some folks even suggest that in some weird way it all comes together in joy. Imagine that, living and dying, pleasure and suffering, all getting mixed up together in joy. That seems like a mystery to me. I think I’ve caught glimpses before, but it’s not the normal course of things for me at this point.

The other thought that I’ll throw out there is that the Philippians passage seems to suggest that Christ is resurrected, but is also still suffering. Again, all mixed up together. How can Christ be the resurrected Christ, but at the same time I can share in his sufferings right now. Weird.

Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

I think you're right about the cross being important because of the reminder that as followers of Christ we will suffer also. And I agree that the cross and the resurrection are all bound up together so they can't really be separated. But I think for me the point is that yes, if I follow truly I will probably end up on a cross of some sort, but that won't be the end--that won't be the point. The point isn't suffering and dying. The point is knowing truth and the truth setting us free, paradoxically, through our death and new life.

I have learned a lot this year about Christian-Jewish relations over the centuries, and although I don't think it was intentional, the use of the cross as the symbol of Christianity was very distasteful to early Jews. They expected a Messiah who would be powerful politically, and to imagine the Messiah would die on a cross--reserved for the worst criminals and a symbol of Roman oppression--was unpalatable. I don't know that Christians did this intentionally, but it definitely had the result of solidifying the hatred between early followers of Christ and those who stayed in Judaism.

I think if we think of the cross like you're suggesting, that's great--it can be a helpful symbol. But all too often (not just in church history but today) the cross is used as a reminder of our guilt and sin rather than a reminder that we're set free. That's what I mean by the controlling aspect of the symbol of the cross. People use it as a guilt-trip, something that tears humanity down so they can be controlled and hopeless, rather than knowing that through Christ they can/have been set free to truly live--even when that living involves suffering and death.

David Korfhage said...

I have read that a symbol in the early Church, often depicted in artwork, is Christ victorious, i.e., Christ resurrected--as opposed to Christ on the cross. The iconographic shift has been connected with changes in understandings of the atonenment. Early Christians tended to stress (as I understand it) the Christus Victor theory of atonement, in which the stress is on the resurrection as a sign of Christ's victory over the devil, death, and sin. Later in the Middle Ages (Anselm is usually given the credit/blame), legalistic, substitutionary theories of the atonement attain more prominence, which lay a greater stress on Christ's death on the cross. At that point and as a result the artistic depictions change from emphasizing Christ resurrected (stressing his victory over death) to Christ as man of sorrows, suffering on the cross.

That may not be historically accurate, although I have read accounts like that in a number of places. But it does certainly seem to fit in with your take on the cross, Cherice.

Adding to what Paul said, they clearly are mixed up--that is, death and resurrection--the death is not just literal (though it can be, as Tom Fox shows) but also figurative: dying to sin. But dying to sin is the same as being born to the New Life, so that in that figurative sense death is resurrection.



Unknown said...

Thanks, David, for the helpful info! Do you know how they icon-ized the resurrection?

David Korfhage said...


If you go to Google Images and search on "Christ in majesty," you'll get a bunch of statues, paintings, frescos, etc. from the early church with the imagery. You'll see there is a pretty standard depiction.

I came across a link about changing depictions of the crucifixion in art at

Hope this helps.