When I was in the sixth grade our youth choir performed Michael W. Smith’s song “Cross of Gold” . If you don’t have time to watch this rad live performance of the song, I’ll boil down the gist: Michael W. Smith is calling out other pop stars (most likely Madonna, though he doesn’t call her by name) about their rationale behind wearing a cross. He asks them “Tell me why you wear your cross of gold?”
So what is the meaning of the cross? Why does anyone choose to wear the symbol? For some, the cross is a means of warding off evil— an insurance policy against demons and vampires and other things that go bump in the night. For others, it is a sign of allegiance to their faith, a way to publicly proclaim which side they stand on.
Prior to Jesus’ death, the cross had its own imagery. The Roman empire used the cross to publicly torture and make examples of revolutionaries. The cross was intended to say “We have the power. Anyone who dares to try to overthrow us has this to look forward to.” When Jesus’ followers saw Him on the cross, they saw the loss of all hope. The “King of the Jews” was supposed to change everything. His crucifixion was the symbol of ultimate failure. Truly, the message of the cross was a warning against foolishness. It is what happened to the idiots who dared to believe life can be different.
Jesus’ followers hoped that he would overthrow the Roman Empire and reestablish the kingdom of Israel. This was the threat to Rome, and the reason he was sentenced to die on the cross.
But Jesus’ revolutionary message was so much more subversive than the one the crowd before Pilate pinned on him. He redeemed prostitutes and tax-collectors. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He cast out demons and condemned those who felt they were beyond reproach. The crowds of the day saw the Roman Empire as the ultimate enemy, but Jesus knew His battle was one of even greater importance.
And in His death and resurrection, Jesus also subverted the original message of the cross. For those of us who believe, the threats of political powers, abusive leaders, oppressive societal structures, even internal demons, are empty.
We can hope foolishly, fight passionately, love completely.
To those of us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.
Janna McClain lives with her husband, dog, and two children in Sewanee, TN. She is a staff member at Sewanee: The University of the South and parishioner of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro, TN.