Cross

Archbishop of Canterbury: The Cross Has Become a Fashion Symbol

Madonna in her Confessions Tour, hanging from a mirrored cross in 2006. Photo: RNS/courtesy Oscar Rohena via Wikimedia Commons

The Christian cross has become little more than a piece of jewelry worn around the necks of celebrities, said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

In the foreword to a new book about Christianity, the head of the world’s 85 million Anglicans presents the symbol of Roman torture upon which Jesus died as “the moment of deepest encounter with radical change.”

And he regrets that after 2000 years, the cross has become trivialized.

Becoming Fluent in the Language of Hope

THE CELEBRATED PHILOSOPHER Ludwig Wittgenstein used to speak—disapprovingly—of “language going on holiday.” For example, sportswriters often free language from the drudgery of everyday common usage to let it spread its wings in glorious hyperbole about their favorite teams.

Our biblical heritage gives us examples that are much deeper. When we read the prophets especially, we hear language liberated from the constraints of the everyday to give it a sacred vacation, a true “holy-day,” so that it can return to us reinvigorated. We hear them sending language on an adventure holiday into the realm of God’s future. When they receive the words back, the prophets find themselves recounting visions of a new world that God has in store.

Eschatological language that has been to the future and back exerts a powerful authority over us. In this month’s scriptures we experience that authority again in Isaiah’s unforgettable oracles about the holy mountain on which no one shall ever again hurt or destroy. We shall see, with our mind’s eye, the rising of the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings. We shall hear Jesus speaking of the life waiting for the children of the resurrection. The church’s year ends by inviting us to enter under the authority of the coming kingdom, to become fluent in its strange language of hope, harmony, and ultimate reunion with the Holy One who has reconciled all creation through the cross and resurrection.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ NOVEMBER 3 ]
The Eyes Have It
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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St. Louis Cardinals Remove Cross from Pitcher’s Mound

Photo courtesy RNS/ Shane Epping.
Pitcher Todd Wellemeyer pitches from the mound at Busch Stadium in 2009. Photo courtesy RNS/ Shane Epping.

There’s controversy at the mound at Busch Stadium, and it has nothing to do with who’s pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Last month fans started seeing a cross etched into the pitcher’s mound at the stadium. Since then, the club has asked that the etchings stop.

“It is not club policy to put religious symbols of any type on the field or in the ballpark. When we became aware of this practice, we asked that it stop so that it would not be confused as an official expression of the club,” the Cardinals organization said in a statement.

Soaking in the Word of God

AS THE SEAONS after Pentecost unfolds, we might think that summer calls for a kind of “church lite” in which we shouldn’t expect much to happen. With the dramatic commemorations behind us, the scriptures seem miscellaneous. But this season has its own purpose of soaking in the Word. Just let go of dependence on drama.

Our month’s reading opens in 2 Kings 5 with the healing of Naaman, the distinguished Aramean general, told with a dry humor that Jesus appreciated, since he specifically mentions it (Luke 4:27) in his teaching about faith found outside the bounds of Israel. At first Naaman’s dignity is offended by Elisha not bothering even to meet him in person. His pride receives a further blow in the ludicrous banality of the prescription that Elisha’s assistant passes on: “Go, and wash in the Jordan seven times” (verse 10). Naaman’s fuming about the short shrift he got, and the humiliation of being prescribed a business of splashing in a local stream, are quite comic. Paddling in the Jordan indeed—a ditch in comparison to the storied rivers of Damascus! Smiling, we recognize the storyteller’s shrewd knowledge of psychology. The tale has a good ending. Finally getting off his high horse, Naaman allows his aide to persuade him to try the simple bathing routine. Over time his skin is healed and rejuvenated.

The church behaves like that shrewd aide when it invites us to trust in the power of hearing the scriptures again and again, however overfamiliar some of them seem, and others obscure.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ July 7 ]
We Can Get the Accuser Fired
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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The Scales of Rejoicing

"THIS IS THE LORD'S DOING; it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice in and be glad in it." We will be singing these words from Psalm 118 on Easter Sunday, and they pinpoint a critical issue in our religious witness. Do we have the courage to have God be the subject of sentences, or is God usually the object of our reflections? There is a difference. Do we make ourselves really the subject of our sentences, so that religion is about our doings and ideas and needs? The scriptures insistently talk about what God did and is doing and will do in Christ, the crucified and risen one. Our role is to rejoice in the way God acts upon us, with us, around us, behind us, above us, ahead of us, through us.

Praise is the litmus test. If God is experienced as the one who is acting, the impulse to praise is inevitable. This may help us understand the importance of the psalms in our lectionary. They aren't mere supplementary devotions. As supreme words of praise, they test the authenticity of our reactions to the good news. They test and they can train. The psalter is the church's manual to help practice the "scales of rejoicing," to borrow a phrase from W.H. Auden's "Christmas Oratorio." A phrase on Auden's tombstone comes back to me: "In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." The psalms come to life only where this teaching is taken seriously.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ March 3 ]
Singled Out for God's Punishment
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

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Crosses, Stars, and New Symbols of a Movement

RNS photo by Ronda Churchill
Amy Davis Roth's homemade ceramic line called "Surlyramics" is shown during The Amazing Meeting convention. RNS photo

Hester Prynne would be so proud.

The red letter “A” that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine was forced to wear as a badge of shame in the classic novel The Scarlet Letter is now proudly chosen by atheists to wear on jewelry made from ceramic, silver, gold, and wood.

Christians have their crosses and crucifixes, Jews their Stars of David, Hindus their oms, and Buddhists their lotuses. Atheists ask, why shouldn’t they and other nonbelievers have their own symbols as well?

“It is the most recognized symbol in our community right now,” said Amy Roth, a Los Angeles atheist who makes ceramic "A" pendants for her “Surlyramics” jewelry line that she sells at atheist conventions and meetings, as well as online.

A Personal Cross Responds to Its Progressive Critique

Biting and unbelieving comedian Bill Hicks challenged Christians about wearing crosses around our necks. He chided us that when Jesus comes back, the last thing he would want to see is another cross. Not unlike Hicks, liberal theologians get squeamish about the saving power of the cross and distance themselves from it with critiques that attack academic euphemisms like blood atonement.

My friend, colleague, and our “religion and culture” book-discussion leader assigned our Sunday school class homework this week: Consider and contemplate our understanding of and relationship with the cross. And do this in the context of a compelling and challenging chapter called “The Cross as Futility, Not Forgiveness” in an excellent and provocative book we’re reading by Robin Meyers called Saving Jesus From The Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. This post serves as part of my response to that homework.

Crosses as powerful symbols predate Christianity and are not the singular insignia of our faith. Some Christians prefer the fish to the cross as an identity marker for Jesus followers. I confess I simultaneously love the empty cross and accept brutality of the bloody crucifix. As contradictory and ubiquitous its grip on our consciousness, we cling to it in comfort. As theologically problematic as we might render its salvific power, we sing of “the rugged cross” and need “nothing but the blood.” 

From my enormous sympathies for Meyer’s intentions and investigations, I’m ultimately left lingering with discontent at his conclusions. I easily devoured Saving Jesus, and alongside my mixed reactions to the text, our class discussions have helped me to wrestle with not just my responses to the book in particular but to clarify my faith and theology more generally.

Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets

Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100
Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4366100883)

Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret -- not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call -- publicly -- for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities.  Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.

Still, this is a strange thing to do, this liturgy outside a hospital.  It does not feel entirely comfortable to me -- but I am not sure anything about Ash Wednesday ever feels entirely comfortable.

What We Need to Do to Cut Poverty in Half in 10 Years

poverty
Perhaps the most important finding from the report is that we have both the experience and the policy tools necessary to cut poverty in half.

Between 1964 and 1973, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the U.S. poverty rate fell by nearly half (43 percent) as a strong economy and effective public policy initiatives expanded the middle class.

Similarly, between 1993 and 2000, shared economic growth combined with policy interventions such as an enhanced earned income tax credit and minimum wage increase worked together to cut child poverty from 23 percent to 16 percent.

We can't do this alone.

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