[A symbol] participates in that to which it points. . . [and] it opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us. (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 42)
A lot of people would argue that the central symbol of the Christian religion is the Cross. Important as it is, I do not agree. I think the whole person of Jesus–life, death, resurrection, ascension–is the symbol which requires fuller attention. Without the rest of the narrative, the Cross makes little, if any, sense. At best, the Cross is a shorthand for the whole.
Tillich probably emphasizes the Cross a bit more than I would:
Any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry. The ultimate concern of the Christian is not Jesus, but the Christ Jesus who is manifest as the crucified. (Dynamics, p. 98)
But Jesus is not only the crucified. He is also the incarnate, the resurrected, and ascended. The Cross, for me, is a symbol of the total symbol which is Jesus as Christ. Crucifixion is what casts the shadow over the whole, but it is not itself the whole. The crucifixion would make no sense except as back-lit by the rest of the narrative.
So, the Cross, I think, is a symbol of the symbol of Jesus. And a symbol points to, and participates in, the reality it symbolizes.
How do I want to break this down, in a way that is helpful to my own journey past the obvious and conventional in the Christian religion.
First, the Cross as the symbol of Jesus, which participates in the reality of Jesus. In a way, the Cross was what made Jesus what we know him as today. The Cross ended the life-as-it-was, and made possible the life-as-it-had-not-been (for which the word “resurrection” is itself symbol and shorthand). It participated in, and yet, it calls to mind (points to), the whole of the narrative.
The person of Jesus, though, is still a symbol–much as the founder or central figure of any movement or nation has a symbolic role, even if the person is a more readily verified historic figure. A Christian can barely say or hear the name without a flood of impressions filling his or her consciousness.
But the name does not call to mind a static picture. It focuses on attention to an active narrative of one whose life was formed and ended by an intense dedication to peace, wholeness, justice, and in whose memory much work has been done to those ends. “Your kingdom come, on earth”: the Jesus of the Gospel narratives embodied this petition, demonstrated what it would look like, and commanded those who followed him to pray (and act) to its fulfillment. Pointing to, participating in.
But the symbol is never the whole of what it symbolizes. So, Jesus–symbolized by the name, or the image of the Cross–is not the whole of Christian concern. Jesus participates in something larger than himself, and points the Christian mind and heart to that greater reality.