In the days after 9/11, as workers cleaned up the rubble that had been the Twin Towers, one image that we kept seeing was that of a 17 foot high cross shaped steel Ibeam. It became a symbol of hope amidst the physical and emotional devastation of those tragic days. For the past 5 years that cross has been on display outside a nearby Catholic Church. Late last month it was moved to the National Museum and Memorial Site for 9/11. Not surprisingly, it has aroused controversy. Atheist groups among others are suing to have the cross removed siting a violation of Church and State. Since the cross is not a symbol that means anything to them, they are saying their rights are infringed upon. In addition the inclusion of the cross has caused emotional harm. Their suit alleges that unbelievers have suffered "dyspepsia, depression, headaches, anxiety and mental pain and anguish" from the inclusion of a cross at this national memorial site.
What does the cross mean? That is at the heart of the controversy over the 9/11 memorial site. In the New Testament it is not a symbol of hope. There is no indication it was even a symbol of Christianity for hundreds of years. Who would wear a cross around their necks? At the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel punishment. The Resurrection was a symbol of hope. Not the cross.
In Matthew 16 when Jesus tells his disciples that there is a cross in his future and in theirs, Peter, for one, tries to talk him out of it. No one thought this was a good idea. Crosses were not good for people. They should be avoided at all costs. Which was the point Jesus was making. The cross is a sign of the cost of following Jesus.
Many major world war battlefields are dotted with small white crosses to mark the sacrifices of those who died. Like the 9/11 cross these crosses are symbolic of the hope that something good will come out of the sacrifices of these lives. In some general sense these crosses say that these people have not died in vain. We mark their deaths this way and honor their sacrifices.
The cross of Jesus marked a sacrificial death as well. Jesus died on the cross for our sins the Christian gospel states. The cross is the means of the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. More than that, Jesus states in Matthew 16, the cross marks the shape of the ordinary, everyday life of Christians. Daily, we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
This was and is a hard saying. Peter certainly had a hard time with it. Later on Paul would write that the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Everyone had a hard time seeing how the cross could be good news.
Today we need to ask ourselves, what does the cross mean to us? Is it a political football? Is it a political statement that fires up emotions when questions are raised about whether it should be placed in public places or not? Is it a symbol reserved for special events or cemeteries? Or is it an everyday reality for us followers of Jesus who are trying to heed what he said, and "take up our cross and follow him."