We pass by it on buildings and roadways. We speak of it in church and bless ourselves with the sign of it. Some may wear it for personal fashion or religious profession. Others will hang it conspicuously in classrooms or homes.
The “it” is ubiquitous — a cross. But has this symbol become so commonplace that we no longer see it for what it really is?
Whether as an architectural apex or a roadside memorial, the cross stands as a primal image and focal symbol of the Christian faith. Given the visual culture in which we live, it may now have even greater potential to transform the world. Actualizing that potential requires a reconsideration of the transformative power latent in this universal image.
Art has long depicted the sacred. Images of the faith abound in paintings, sculptures, icons, and stained-glass windows, not to mention architecture, literature, music, and other media. But the real power of religious imagery extends beyond the material quality of the construct to encompass, express, and engage a spiritual dimension at work in the one who truly “sees” the images for what they are.
That spiritual character resides in the power of imagery to touch people. “Images are not inanimate signifiers,” says David Morgan, a professor of religious studies at Duke University. They are “active agents that shape and structure the experience of saints, self, and the divine.”
In this sense, a sacred image is not something just to look at. It’s meant to be seen. The difference calls forth a uniquely human power of perception.
When we truly “see” a sacred image, we not only look at it, we are acted upon by it. We might say that the image looks back at us, does something to us, and challenges us to be something more. Really seeing it invites us to become what we perceive, to participate in what is depicted to us, even to emulate what the image represents.
In this sense, the cross stands as the Christian image par excellence. By means of it, we not only remember what happened when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on it. We also encounter who we are and envision who we are called to be.
In conceptual terms, the cross serves as a “primal image” by expressing in a non-discursive manner the mystery that gives meaning to our lives. As a “focal symbol,” it defines our identity as followers of Christ and centers our worship on the God whose own beloved Son died for our salvation.
Wendy Wright, a professor of spirituality at Creighton University, explains those concepts in relation to the distinctive human process whereby we “image, sort, organize and see patterns and meanings every moment of our lives.”
In the act of contemplative gazing, the imagination can excite our emotions, inform our intellects, and vivify our desires. This, says Wright, is how sacred images “tease the viewer … into longing for a world that is differently constructed from the one in which he or she lives.”
This uniquely human ability to perceive a new world through the imagination makes of the cross something more than merely a familiar shape, more than just a reminder of an historical event. To see a cross with eyes of faith is to gain insight into that divine love for human beings that transcends the trials and tribulations of this world.
Therein lies the transformative power of the cross as sacred image. Through it, we remember the past of what happened on it and the person who submitted to it for our sakes. We embrace the present ways in which we, too, can bear it, in solidarity with all who suffer in this life. We long for the future Resurrection to which it points and for which it paved the way.
We “lift high the cross,” materially and imaginatively, to be the standard by which we live out the Paschal mystery in our own lives. That mystery is one of redemptive suffering. The cross points to it and engages people in it. The believer embraces it by baptism and strives to take it up daily.
Still today, whether we pass by it, speak about it, wear it, or display it, the cross discloses the fundamental meaning and message of Christian faith. It remains a sign and symbol of what Wright describes as “the basic fabric of a merciful universe in which pain (is) transfigured into joy.”
To share the joy of that divine love is why we forever “exalt” the cross.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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