The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

The Cross

Monday, 6 April 2020, 09:25 Last update: about 3 months ago

Vikki Micallef

It sounds like a paradox - the Cross is a symbol of agony and death but also of triumph and salvation. An icon that commands respect and reverence, enough to make us get down on our knees whenever we stand before it, despite the horror of execution that is associated with it. This simple geometric shape is one of the most powerful symbols in the world and the unifying factor of all denominations of Christianity.

In Western Societies, the Cross is everywhere. Not just in cathedrals, churches and religious institutions but also in our homes, in paintings and works of art, in films and music videos. Even if, in the case of the latter two, the point of the cross turning up in trashy horror movies and music videos by pop stars like Madonna in a sacrilegious or blasphemous way, is overstepping the mark of good taste and generally considered to be offensive.

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In Malta, the Cross is omnipresent. It hangs on the walls inside many of our public buildings, in our courtrooms, our hospital wards, our children’s classrooms. It is a reminder that the Roman Catholic Church, the largest part of the Christian Church which acknowledges the Pope as its head, is the state religion as established by the Constitution of Malta. The Catholic Church is widely reflected in various elements of Maltese culture notwithstanding a somewhat rapid decline in its power and influence over the years.

The Cross is also a fashion symbol, sometimes blurring the boundaries between the sacred and profane. It could very well be a piece of fine jewellery or just a trinket. We may wear it as an earring or hang it on a necklace and bracelet, or on a navel and eyebrow ring just to make a fashion statement. We have it sewn on to leather and denim and printed on t-shirts and hoodies for a trendier look. We even get the tattoo artist to etch it onto parts of our body.

We may also believe that the Cross can ward off all evil, shielding those who wear it as a protective force. It is one of the reasons that the custom among Christians to cross themselves means so much to them. As a child, I too was raised to believe that whenever I felt threatened or frightened, all I had to do was to cross myself from head to heart and shoulder to shoulder. This meaningful gesture is both a blessing and a prayer and it brings me comfort and consolation to this very day.

The Cross is everywhere indeed. It is cut in the dough to mark the top of the hot cross buns that are traditionally eaten during Lent. Some years ago, British artist George Heslop spent Good Friday sculpting a controversial life-sized image of Christ on the Cross entirely out of chocolate. His intention was to divert attention away from the beautifully packaged chocolate bunnies and eggs. According to the artist, our overindulgence in chocolate overlooked the true meaning of Easter, turning it into a crass celebration.

The Cross was not always the main symbol of Christianity. The early Christians used the fish symbol to avoid being persecuted or mocked by Pagans because, at the time, the gruesome crucifixion was also the method of execution for murderers and thieves. Following Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, punishment by crucifixion was abolished and the use of the cross as a symbol became openly popular. It is now used by over 2 billion Christians worldwide as an aid to prayer and symbol of their faith.

When the white smoke billowing from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican signals that a new bishop of Rome has been elected as head of the Roman Catholic Church, the jubilant crowd shifts its attention to the central balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation. And after the joyful announcement, the first to appear on the balcony is the silver crucifix followed faithfully by the newly elected Pontiff as he prepares to deliver his first urbi et orbi to the jubilant crowd.

As Pope Francis has undoubtedly discovered, being Pope is a lonely job indeed. But throughout the journey of his papacy, he will lean heavily on that crucifix from which he will draw strength to lead the faithful in the name of God. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that has claimed several thousand lives is a case in point. Whilst daily life in Italy all but ground to a halt, one Sunday afternoon in March Pope Francis left the Vatican unannounced and walked to a church in Rome dedicated to Saint Marcello.

There he knelt at the foot of the venerated Crucifix that is believed to have miraculously prevented the devastating plague that swept through the city in the 16th century from spreading further. According to a Vatican statement, Pope Francis prayed for an end to the Coronavirus pandemic, for the sick and their families, for the doctors and nurses, and for all those who have been thrust into the front line fighting the deadly disease.

Barely three weeks later, Pope Francis presided over a livestreamed moment of prayer, beside the same crucifix that was transported to St Peter’s Basilica specifically for the occasion. He delivered his extraordinary blessing to the city of Rome and to the world in what has now characteristically become an empty St Peter’s Square. Pope Francis cast himself on the mercy of God, imploring Him to calm the raging tempest that is the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Cross is still very much a living symbol. Every time we look at it, we are reminded of the brutality that happened on it two thousand years ago. Which is why many Christians feel outrage when it is ridiculed and abused. Whether we believe that Jesus is the Son of God or not, the image of a tortured human being with his open arms nailed to a cross and left to die in agony should be horrifying for each and every one.

Many Christians struggle to come to terms with the extreme cruelty of death by crucifixion. But the true meaning of the Cross runs deeper. It reveals that the very heart of God is mercy and forgiveness. Everything we have ever done or may be about to do wrong was placed on Jesus as he hung on the Cross that first Good Friday. It is that same Cross that became the centre of God’s entire plan for the redemption of mankind.

When a huge fire ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year, Robert Hardman writing for the English newspaper The Daily Mail. was among the first witnesses to enter the gutted cathedral. This is what he wrote: “at the far end of the cathedral, illuminated by lingering embers and firefighters’ equipment, I could just make out a stunning symbol of defiance through the gloom: the unmistakeable sight of a crucifix on what remains of the altar.”

Like the Faith that it represents, the mighty Cross of Christ has shown its power to withstand the siege by evil forces throughout the ages. It is yet another sign of God’s Omnipresence in the world that He created. A symbol of hope that fulfils the promise that Jesus Christ had made to all mankind. “I will be with you always, even until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20)

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