“Alexander worships his god.”
This is the declaration written next to the oldest drawing of a crucifix in existence. The inscription and the crucifix comprise a bit of graffiti found on the wall of what was once part of the imperial compound in Rome. It dates back perhaps to the first century, very early in the history of the Church.
There is something very chilling about this particular inscription and this particular crucifix, however. It was not the pious drawing of an anonymous Christian spreading the faith. It is, in fact, a sarcastic scribble.
For the body hanging from the crucifix is portrayed with the head of an ass.
The crucifix and the inscription, Alexander worships his god, mocks the faith of a Christian. Somebody was heaping bitter ridicule at Alexander and the cross and the ass hanging from it was the surest and meanest way of doing it. Today we’d call it bullying, and the wall where it was scratched so everyone could see it was a first century Facebook.
There is nothing I know of—except for this wicked piece of graffiti—that shows more clearly that the message of the crucified Christ seemed anything but edifying to the people who first heard about it.
It seemed more like a bad, tasteless joke, exactly as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “A scandal to the Jews and stupidity to the gentiles.”
I can understand why. If Jesus had lived moving from one glory to the next, there wouldn’t have been a public relations problem at all. But, no, instead Jesus had to go and get himself crucified on a cross. That was the problem.
In Roman law it was absolutely forbidden that a Roman citizen should be put to death by crucifixion. It was a form of death reserved for criminals, traitors, rebellious slaves, outlaws, pirates, and the lowest of brigands.
And the message crucifixion sent was clear: Don’t do what this guy did, understand?
Crucifixion, maintained the Roman senator Cicero, was the most cruel, most repulsive, most horrible form of death and it should to be used only on the most repulsive of criminals.
To say that God’s Messiah, the savior of the world, was crucified was to babble nonsense and stupidity.
For the Jews, death by the cross was a certain sign that God’s curse was upon the victim. Look, God has abandoned him to his fate and turned his back upon the victim’s suffering predicament. Too bad, so sad, but he deserved it, right?
Is it not written in Deuteronomy: “He who hangs from the tree is the accursed of God”?
Death by the cross was a testimony that everything the victim had stood for in life was repudiated by God, negated, made null and void. The victim’s life was meaningless because the he lived brought him to this final, ignoble, obscene, and shameful end.
To die on the cross was to die forsaken by God and humanity. Upon this symbol of outlawry and rebellion died he who was said to be redeemer of the world, the Messiah of God, but nothing more than a scandal to the Jews and stupidity to the gentiles.
It is only a little short of amazing that the cross, a sign of ultimate disgrace, could become a sign of God’s all-encompassing grace. How that happened is an interesting story.
The death of Christ, you see, did not remain a cause for ridicule, because the faith of our community and all other Christian communities is this: The one who was crucified lives, and God did it. The one who was crucified lives nevertheless as our hope for this life and the next.
The cross is God’s sacrifice for us. The resurrection is God’s assurance that the way of the cross is not for nothing; that it is for something.
The cross is our experience of life: we hang unto death in this world. The resurrection is God’s way of saying: “Follow that man. He knows the way to go.”
The cross of Christ is an appeal: live bravely, boldly in this world and do not be afraid.
The cross is an appeal to embrace the hope of true freedom, true love, and true humanity as it was lived by Christ; an appeal to love what is good, to keep faith even in a faithless age.
The cross becomes our experience of salvation and to follow in its wake becomes our opportunity for renewal. The cross becomes the courage of a Christian stepping forth in an uncertain world.
It’s not a happy world outside these walls. Sometimes, it isn’t such a happy place inside these walls. I do not know of anything that will protect us from unhappiness, not even our faith.
Nothing we believe will snatch us from hardship, or sorrow, or disappointment. There is nothing to preserve us from insult, hurt feelings, or a sense of loss.
No one escapes this life without being bruised or battered, or tossed around.
So it is not unreasonable to ask, what good is faith if it does nothing to cushion us from the things that would hurt?
Might be better to ask Jesus, since his faith—the faith that moved him to seek God’s will—didn’t save him from the cross.
What the faith of Jesus did do was give him the audacity to trust God, whatever.
The same thing our faith does for us. That clings to the cross in obedience and hope—exactly the sort to take us through the tomb and into the light, trusting God’s hands to hold us firmly.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, and a featured author at First Things magazine web site.