The Cross: Absurdity or Power?

“Christ on the Cross” (detail) by Velazquez


If your leader was brutally scourged, publicly humiliated and made a sport of, then killed on a hill for all to see, wouldn’t you be tempted to downplay the event?  Instead, what does Paul tell the Corinthians? He not only doesn’t downplay it, he preaches it. He proclaims not just a risen Christ, but first a Christ crucified. (1 Cor 1:23) At times, Catholics are criticized for depicting Christ on the cross.  He’s not still on the Cross, so why are we dwelling on the fact?

Paul admits to the Corinthians the obvious: the cross is a stumbling block for the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles.  While praying with the Scriptures, I paused over this idea.  What about for us in 2016?  Is the Cross an absurdity or a stumbling block for us?  I think it is — but not in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.

For Paul’s audience, the very image of the cross and the idea that it was holy or a sign of power was absolutely ludicrous. We, by and large, have lost that shock.  We have become desensitized, if you will, to the Cross.  It is such a common symbol, we have forgotten how radical it is.  We not only wear it around our necks or hang it on our wall, we refer to the Cross as a sign of victory!  Think of the hymn Lift High the Cross:  “Led on their way by this triumphant sign…”  Or the last verse, “So shall our song of triumph ever be / Praise to the Crucified for victory.”

What?  Victory?  Triumph?

During the time of the Romans, the cross was so horrific that the Roman philosopher Cicero wouldn’t even describe it directly in his writing. The whole ordeal of crucifixion was meticulously planned by the Romans, who had perfected the process of execution.  They would place the crosses near city gates or along busy roads so that everyone would see the victims’ extreme pain and their long hours of agony. To those living under Roman rule, the cross was a sign of oppression, meant to discourage uprisings or disobedience. It was a sign of terror, of suffering, of humiliation.

And now that sign has been transformed — from a sign of brutality and oppression to a sign of victory and love.

Do we realize how radical the Cross is?

We forget the scandal of the Cross. We forget how shocking it is. And as a result, I think we forget the enormity of what He did for us.

So is the Cross is a stumbling block for us?  I don’t think it is in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.  The sight isn’t shocking. The symbol doesn’t remind us of oppression or horror.  The idea isn’t shocking anymore (although it should be).

You know what is the stumbling block for us?  The reality of it in our own lives. When we come face to face with the Cross- with suffering, with emotional, psychological, or physical pain, with struggles that don’t make sense, with trials that don’t seem fair… that is our stumbling block.

“Why is there suffering in this life?”

It is the age-old question. And guess what?  I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer.

And that can either be a stumbling block, or we can embrace it as Simon of Cyrene did.

You know why I’ve come to believe that depicting Christ on the Cross — of having a crucifix with a corpus on it and not just an empty cross — is vital?  Because we never embrace a cross in our life without embracing Christ.  If we try to embrace the crosses in our life alone, we’ll never be able to survive.  But when we embrace the wood of the Cross, we embrace Christ. And He embraces us.  And that’s the only way suffering is possible.

Suffering is a mystery.  We can’t explain it.  It’s an absurdity.  But once you see it with the eyes of faith, even the struggle to embrace it becomes lighter.

CS Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

And that is the only way I think the believer can wrap his mind around suffering. We can’t explain it, but once you see it with the eyes of faith, the absurdity makes sense.  In the light of the Cross, my suffering can be embraced.  …Maybe never fully understood, but embraced in spite of it.

The world thinks we are crazy. But we know the Cross is victory. We know suffering does ultimately have an answer — Jesus Christ.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Cor 1:18

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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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