Sunday, 8 April 2012

Our cross to bear

When I woke up this morning I didn't expect to be restarting my blog, which has become rather stagnant for a while, with something about Easter. For what it is worth, I do not see myself among the ranks of Catholic bloggers, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but rather as a blogger who happens to be Catholic and so religiously themed postings may occur from time to time but are by no means the staple. What has made me write today, however, is the rather bizarre article in the Independent by Giles Fraser, sometime canon of St Paul's Cathedral and now priest of St Mary's, Newington.

Context is everything and Canon Fraser is responding to the call by Cardinal O'Brien to wear the cross as a symbol of their faith. Whether there is discrimination in the UK against Christians who want to show their faith in this way is another discussion but to propose that the crucifix is not a suitable symbol flies in the face of the whole of Christian history. If he is as appalled at the cross as he makes out in his article then he must surely be terrified every time he sets foot inside his church.

"The cross is a symbol of cruelty," says Canon Fraser and this much is true. During the Roman Empire crucifixion was the most horrific punishment that could be meted out and when we read Jesus saying, "if anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" we cannot really comprehend how shocking that would have been to the people who first heard it. However, the cross is central to the Christian message; "we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (1 Cor 1:23). To this quote we might add, "and something just too dreadful to conceive for modern society."

So the cross was already a symbol of Christianity when St Paul was writing to the Corinthians in the first century, long before the conversion of Constantine in 312. If this were not the case then the story of the emperor's conversion coming after a vision of a cross of light with the instruction "in this sign conquer" makes no sense at all. On the other hand Canon Fraser's argument seems to run;

  • The emperor saw the vision of the cross, a sign of Roman dominance, and uses it on imperial shields and 'merchandise' (I now have a mental image of Roman solders queuing up to buy their souvenir key rings and pencils)
  • The emperor somehow sees this sign of Roman dominance as a reason to convert to Christianity
  • The emperor decides that by making the cross a Christian logo everyone would forget that Jesus was crucified
  • No one notices, until Canon Fraser helpfully points it out to the world

It may be because it is so long since I studied logic in my mathematics degree but I cannot make the mental leap from step one to step two, let alone reaching step three.

Much as Canon Fraser may not like it, the cross is a symbol of human salvation according to Christian belief. That salvation comes about through the death and resurrection of Jesus in no way alters its symbolic nature any more than the caduceus should be dispensed with because medical cures are a result of scientific research rather than the power of Hermes. I do not know if I will be wearing a little gold cross as a pledge of church allegiance but if it annoys Canon Fraser I just might.

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