Symbolism of the cross

Vincentian View


Fr. Patrick J. Griffin, CM, Special to the Torch

In Christian circles, this Sunday March 20 is most often called “Palm Sunday.” It is also called “Passion Sunday,” since one proclaims the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. Now, the cross begins to move towards center stage as the symbol of the coming week.

Understandably, the cross can be a difficult image for some people. It stands as the fundamental Christian symbol. At most points on campus, one can look up or around and see a cross or its suggestion. Catholic institutions do not hide, but display this image in many different contexts. I want to say a few words about the cross at St. John’s. The cross stands as the focal point for the entire life and ministry of Jesus. One cannot understand him without understanding the meaning of this instrument of his death. And, it is all about giving.

Often, when people write about the execution of Jesus, they speak of how his life was taken from him. That is the wrong perspective.

His life was not taken but freely given.

He explains that truth boldly and without hesitation:

“No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”  (Jn 10:18)

Jesus emphasizes that, in surrendering his life, he does so out of love. He tells his followers:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends . . .” (Jn 15:13-14)

The entire life of Jesus had been one of giving. He gave comfort and solace to those who were abandoned and alienated. He gave forgiveness to those who sought it with a genuine heart. He gave healing to the sick and possessed, and he gave hope to those who saw no possibility in a future for them. Jesus gave his time and energy freely. Christ gave dignity to those who were marginalized and treated as second class.

Yes, he gave himself to others with love, compassion and generosity.

When the soldiers came to find him in the Garden of Eden, Jesus gave himself into their hands while securing the safety of his followers. When fixed to the cross, he gave absolution to his abusers and to the repentant thief.

Out of concern and love, he gave his mother to the Beloved Disciple, and the Beloved Disciple to his mother. Finally, he gave his spirit into the hands of his Father.

At the end of the day, the cross is empty, not because everything has been taken, but because everything has been given.

Jesus never gave up or gave in; rather, he gave for. The cross has many lessons to teach at a university. It offers the great witness of forgiveness, an instruction on peace over violence, a testimony to faithful love, and the consequences of a surrender to God’s will. As with most symbols, the meanings associated with the cross are rich and varied.

Today, at St. John’s, we can allow it to instruct us about generous giving, which would be freely played out in our time, effort and relationships.  We can be true to this principle in our education and in our lives. Like Jesus, we want to be givers. The pervasive cross at St. John’s can encourage us in that aspiration.