Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Obscenity of the Cross

When asked to provide a definition of obscene, one individual replied: “I can’t. But I know it when I see it.” So do we! Words may be hard to come by, but when confronted with something obscene we know intuitively what it is. Our sense of dignity is offended. Decency is besmirched. Revulsion rises in the pit of our stomach.

In our day the word obscene is virtually a synonym for sexual impropriety, perversion, or deviance. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines obscene as “disgusting to the senses; repulsive, abhorrent to morality,” and then adds, “designed to incite to lust or depravity.” If you ask the average citizen to identify something obscene, he would probably point to online pornography. I doubt that he would refer you to the cross atop the steeple of a church! The fact is, though, the cross was at one time the embodiment of obscenity in its worst possible form.

In the almost 2,000 years since Jesus was impaled on one, the cross has been progressively domesticated. We have sanitized and tamed what in the ancient world was both hideous and loathsome. It seems strangely ironic that the old rugged cross, “the emblem of suffering and shame,” is now universally displayed as an object of decorative beauty.

Most of us would be shocked to see a miniature electric chair dangling from a necklace or a golden locket with a tiny guillotine inside! But the cross, often studded with diamonds or inscribed with words from a lover, has become our most widely sold item of jewelry.

More important still, the cross in the ancient world was not merely an instrument of capital punishment. It symbolized personal reproach and public indecency. Crucifixion did more than kill a man; it humiliated him. The cross was designed not only to break a man’s body but to crush his spirit. Death on the tree was certainly agonizing. It was also, and perhaps more so, aesthetically repugnant.

Knowing this adds new meaning to the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18, 22–24:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.… Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Paul was not persecuted simply for preaching Jesus as the Christ. Rather, he was vilified and mocked because he preached “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” To affirm that Jesus was God incarnate was one thing. But to insist that He died a criminal’s death on this ignominious instrument, and by that death procured eternal redemption, was, to the ancient mind, sheer madness and inexcusable folly.

In perhaps his most glorious hymn of praise to the risen Savior, Paul labors to describe how He who is “in very nature God” humbled Himself “and became obedient to death” (Philippians 2:6, 8). But not just any death. Taking the very nature of a servant he died a death reserved for slaves and the scum of the world. “He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (v. 8). Jesus, explains Martin Hengel, “did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock, much less passing on ‘old and full of years’ like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, He died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. Paul’s Jesus did not die just any death; He was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and contemptible way” (Crucifixion, p. 90).

Thus Paul’s Gospel was a scandalous paradox. To suggest that Messiah must die was bad enough. To proclaim that He died on a cross was an obscene joke, an offense to reason and a violation of moral sanity. “Salvation through a crucified Christ? Nonsense!” Ah, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Melito, bishop of Sardis, put it as best he could:
He who hung the earth [in its place] hangs there, He who fixed the heavens is fixed there, He who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an lsraelitish hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, His body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering, that [His nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide Him who was stripped upon the cross” (Homily on the Passion).
The cross … obscene, degrading, despicable. But “to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).