Meaningful symbols of faith force us to go deeper into our faith. A good sign always leads us beyond the sign itself. And especially when it’s a faith sign, it leads us to explore the contradictions which true faith brings to our life.
The only problem we have with today’s feast is to surface the actual “sign of the cross” which our celebration commemorates. It’s not the symbol which usually pops into our minds when we hear “cross” - the symbol which recently has been mandated to be used in our Roman Catholic churches.
Church historians relentlessly remind us that the depiction of Jesus suffering or dead on a crucifix didn’t appear in Christianity for at least five centuries or more. (That’s why, when they finally did appear, the artists almost always showed Jesus nailed through the hands - a physical impossibility. By the time such images came into existence, crucifixions had been abolished in the Roman Empire. No one was still alive who remembered how such executions actually had been carried out.)
Jesus’ earliest followers never zeroed in as much on Jesus’ physical suffering and death as we do today. Because they believed we’re saved by both his dying and his rising, they quickly went about the task of creating a sign which would demonstrate both of those realities at the same time.
The result is what we today call a “crux gemmata” - a jeweled cross. In its most common form it consists of the outline of a crucifix, but the suffering or dead body of Jesus is replaced by jewels. The cross symbolizes death; the jewels, resurrection. In some instances in which teachers have introduced crux gemmatas to their primary religion classes, they’ve told me their students spontaneously started calling them “happy crosses.” That’s exactly how the earliest Christians regarded them. They knew even if someone could produce an actual photograph of Jesus on Golgotha taken at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Good Friday, that photograph wouldn’t be a Christian symbol. It would only depict “part of the story.”
Though, as I mentioned above, such symbols have been officially excluded from our Eucharistic celebrations, they’ve arrived through the back door in today’s feast. They’re at the heart of our readings.
The image of healing conveyed by the seraph serpent mounted on a pole in the Sinai wilderness is not only employed as a logo by modern medical associations, John’s Jesus applies it to his own death and resurrection in our gospel pericope. The author of Numbers teaches something Christians would later discover: the very things and actions which bring death can also bring life. John’s words on the topic have become a mantra for all Jesus’ followers. “For God so loved the world that he grave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The problem many of us face is that we never get beyond Jesus’ death to appreciate the quality of life he offers. That’s why Paul’s well-known Philippians hymn should be our mind’s background music long after today’s liturgy is over. “Jesus emptied himself . . . he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the pint of death, even death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him....”
I encourage anyone who is able; to spend a few vacation days in Ravenna, Italy, touring its ancient Byzantine, crux-gemmata filled churches. But even if you’re not able to take such a trip, I encourage all of you to reflect on what the first Christians believed Jesus of Nazareth was all about - and the sign of the cross which most symbolized that reality in their lives.