the Sign of the Cross

One of my first encounters with religion were the rosaries in my grandmother’s spare bedrooms. They fascinated me. They looked a bit like jewellery to me, yet I knew I was not allowed to play with them. At the bottom dangled a lonely figure, stretched out in pain. I knew His name was Jesus but I understood very little of why He had ended up there.
When I grew up, the cross became a defining symbol of my religion but I was always deeply troubled by it. As long as I did not truly focus on it, it was a comfortable, homely presence in my life, an object that carried the light and gravitas of God, of eternity, into our daily life. I wore a cross as a pendant on a necklace, but deliberately chose one without Jesus Himself. Not because I found Him awkward, but his violent death unnerved me. When I looked at a traditional crucifix in prayer or just in idleness, it scared me. How could a Man tortured and dying be the ultimate symbol of what a life-giving faith stood for? What God would demand such a price? These days, I find myself remembering both the holiness and the awkwardness I felt during these important Christian holidays. My children go to a Christian (protestant) school, because it is a good school and in walking distance of our house. They have not inherited my religious streak, like their father they are natural born agnostics.  I have always left it up to them what to believe, yet I try to acquaint them with various points of view. On Maundy Thursday we watched a popular Passion special together and my daughter said:’I do not care if it is true or not. It’s just a great story.’ I found myself agreeing, yet thought to myself, if it is true, it’s pretty horrible, pretty and horrible.
Just the other day my crucifix passed through my hand while I was cleaning. I considered the cross in a new light and wondered if the widespread adoption of the cross in Europe had anything to do with our Pagan past. Among evangelicals in this country the Ichthus symbol is more common these days as a token of their spirituality, which makes more sense to me. But the cross by itself is an almost universal symbol and by no means a Christian one.  It is found in various forms across religions, across the world. As I held the crucifix in my hand, I wondered about the hold it still had on me. Learning more about sacred space in the last few months, I have come to see the cross as a symbol of our humanity. It is a symbol of what divides us from the animals and from the natural world: the ability to create and perceive structure in the chaotic blur of reality.  It marks the elements, it signifies life, death and renewal. It is a powerful and potent sign. Then I looked outside: spring unfolds itself with vigour in my garden now. It is the living woods that speak to me now, those who make no claim on eternity and faith. They are just there, I’m here and that is all I can be certain of.  I no longer wonder about the truth. What matters most, is that I live my life honourably.


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