Holy Cross–and Why I Stopped Wearing One

Today was the celebration of Holy Cross day in the Anglican Communion (and probably quite a few other churches that follow a calendar of liturgical observances). I suppose I was a bit surprised I didn’t see quite a few more mentions of Graham Tomlin’s Looking Through the Cross, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2014.

But maybe I’m not that surprised. The most important part of the book is really the Archbishop’s introduction. ++Justin Welby gave possibly the most intriguing idea of the book, which I hoped would be better expounded in the main body of Tomlin’s text. I was disappointed. Welby poses an interesting question:

Two thousand years later, the cross has lost much of its capacity to shock and to challenge. . . Today it is more commonly seen as a symbol of beauty to hang around your neck. . . Are we now living with a symbol emptied of power by time and fashion?

It’s a great question. Not original to ++Justin, it first appeared on my radar during a seminar in my doctoral studies in which we read Moltmann’s The Crucified God. A development of that challenge would have been a welcome thing in Tomlin’s text; but the hope was not fulfilled.

It is a commonplace to say that the work of Christ was completed on the cross (although arguably the resurrection might be important too). It is common to say that “Jesus died for ME!” (as if Jesus’ death wasn’t redemptive for the whole world, only for those who acknowledge him as their “personal Lord and Savior”). And other such nonsense. The cross is important, but it is not the whole of the work of Christ–his life, resurrection, and ascension are necessary to put the cross in proper context.

About twelve years ago, I stopped wearing a cross as a piece of jewelry. I have a number, mainly ones given to me as gifts; one that I received on my graduation from seminary. Some are plain, some are really quite beautiful. But I feel no need to wear them.

Welby indicated that the cross used in worship helps to focus the mind of the worshipper on the sacrifice and victory of Christ–an instrument of torture is made glorious through the faith of Christian believers. And I have no problem with the use of crosses in churches: carried in procession, as a focal point in architecture, worn by members of the liturgical party. (Although it is interesting that neither the nave nor the quire of Canterbury Cathedral have a prominent cross displayed.)

But outside the worship setting, there really is no reason to wear or display a cross, and I’ve heard it said that when someone does, “the bigger the cross, the bigger the problem.”

When the press got hold of ++Justin’s questions and challenges about wearing a cross on a daily basis, my LinkedIn group went nuts. There was a lot of anger, because a lot of people loved wearing their cross. It “reminds” them of Jesus, it helps them to “stand up and be counted as Christians”, it was something given to them on their confirmation or when they became a member of some particular sub-group of Christians (a prayer society, an affiliation with a monastic order, completion of Cursillo).

And this brings me back to the question of “cross as fashion statement”. If you need a piece of jewelry to “remind” you of your religious affiliation, you possibly need a stronger life of devotion rather than a piece of metal. And using a cross as a social identifier is problematic. The church isn’t some kind of secret society where we need to wear some symbol to let others know we’re members.

For those outside the church, who identify Christianity with anti-intellectual craziness, the cross-as-jewelry could be a very negative identifier; the same could be true of people who have been hurt or betrayed by the institutional church. For some people (to an extent, including me), a visible cross may be more of a warning that the wearer is suspect. Once again, the bigger the cross, the bigger the problem.

And a piece of jewelry isn’t what marks someone as a Christian. Attitudes and behavior do that. If Christianity is meant to be attractive and compelling, it is not the jewelry worn, but the way those who follow Christ speak and act in their daily lives.

If you have to wear a cross to show you’re Christian, you aren’t doing it right.

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3 thoughts on “Holy Cross–and Why I Stopped Wearing One

  1. I agree , but in my experiences I have seen far to many times, people behaving questionably. And then you look and there is a cross hanging off of their neck, as if to say ” it’s o.k., I am doing bad things, but I believe in God, in Jesus”

  2. I do wear a cross, an “empty cross’ rather than a cruxifex. But, I wear it on a long enough chain that it is not noticable to anyone else. As a priest, I wear it as a reminder to myself of whom it is that I serve. As a Chaplain, the position I held throughout my working life, I never wore clerical clothing except on Sunday if I was celebrating. A cross is not , to me, to be worn as jewelry, but a sign of personal piety. If I have to advertise, your very right. I ain’t doin it right.

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