So at a recent family gathering, the question was posed to me, “Why do churches have crosses on top of them?”
The question came from my brother whom I love very much. But, us being Sicilian and Irish with a bit of English football fan thrown in for good measure, the conversation ended up getting a bit loud as our conversations can. This was, as is usually the case, at least 75% my fault. Okay, maybe more than 75% my fault. As I reflected on the conversation however, and the fact that he said the question was asked of him by someone innocent (i.e. a child) I realized that this is a pretty good question, really. After all, the cross was an instrument of torturous death for criminals, now we go to pray in buildings topped by, you guessed it, crosses. I can’t imagine how someone who finds this gross must be aghast at us Catholics. I mean, we leave the corpus on our crosses! A full fledged crucifix, right where we pray. Yuck!
Can you imagine going to pray in a building with an electric chair on top of it? It might be cool if it was some kind of really awesome heavy metal rock club, but not a church.
So I thought, if this is a really good question, then there must be a really good answer. Why do we go into buildings topped with a torture device to pray to a loving, merciful God? The answer was more simple then I could have hoped. The cross is no longer a device of torturous death. Not only has crucifixion given way to new, more exciting ways to torture and kill people, but, by coming to us as a man and sacrificing himself on a cross, our loving, merciful God hurled it through the looking glass forever.
To the Jews and Romans of Jesus' day, the cross was a sign that someone had been condemned. But by allowing himself to be taken into custody, Jesus drained the cross of its power of condemnation and turned it into the power of our salvation. Imagine how crestfallen the soldiers and guards were when they saw the ‘monster’ they were sent out to arrest. And then he has the nerve not to even put up a fight? “Oh poopus Brutus, I didn’t even get to use my sword!”
The cross was the way that the Romans would hang troublemakers up as an example. It was a warning to others so that they would stay quiet and wallowing in their oppression. But God took that symbol of oppression and showed us the ultimate freedom. No longer could we be held down by our failings, for we are His children and when we let His spirit live in us, we are truly, undeniably and irrevocably free.
As criminals would walk through town to the ‘Place of the Skull’ the citizenry would come out to jeer at them, throw things at them, hit them and spit at them. It was a hike of humiliation, a true 'walk of shame'. The journey that Jesus took was no different than that. He too was taunted, hit, spit upon and cursed. But he trod those steps, those brutal, painful steps, as the pathway to the glory of the Father.
Whether nailed or tied to the cross, the offending miscreant usually expired because his legs could no longer hold his body up. Having his arms outstretched, the weight of his body would make it impossible for him to breathe and he would suffocate himself. This must have been agonizing; the epitome of suffering. But by taking not only his own body weight, but the weight of our sin onto the cross with him, Jesus used this suffering as the way to heal us by saving us from sin.
If you were carrying a cross, that was a sure sign that you had been condemned to death. It was a tool used for nothing more than ending a life. Even if you were ‘lucky’ enough to suffer for two or three days and live, the Roman guards would come and break your legs, ensuring your demise. Nobody returned from crucifixion. It was death. But Jesus, after giving himself freely, totally and faithfully on the cross, did come back. He was resurrected, bringing the fruitfulness of everlasting life to all of those who turn their hearts toward him and accept his mercy.
So there it is in a nutshell; what the cross on the top of a church means to me. It is a symbol of the gifts God came to give to us. It is His glorious salvation, suffering for our sins and offering us freedom from them so that we may be healed and share in His everlasting life. And for what it’s worth, I am proud to be a Catholic and glad that we depict the full crucifix, corpus and all. For only in recalling Jesus’ suffering, can we truly appreciate the price He paid to purchase our forgiveness.
Oh, and about the electric chair on top of churches. Lest we forget, those condemned to die today are also God's children and in need of His mercy. One of Jesus' most radical teachings 2000 years ago is just as radical now; Love your enemies and pray for them.
"Oh my Jesus,
Please save us from the fires of Hell.
And lead all souls into Heaven,
Especially those most in need of your mercy."