The Semiotics of the Cross

He wanted to be present in the world in order to be present in our lives as a counterforce to that suffering. Which is a role He continues in today.

And somehow thinking of this - which is to say, thinking of us - was an antidote to the fear.”

What does the Cross mean?

The Cross is a terrifying thing to me: the symbol of everything that is broken, twisted, and wrong in the human heart, human society, and the universe in which we live. It is a human thing, the product of one specific culture, but the message it sends is universal. It is a made thing, a social construction, but it relies for its power on built-in weaknesses in the human body: our mortality, thrown up in our own face. This is the way the world is. It breaks you.

The Cross is the symbol of violent death. There is no way to make this pretty or attractive or healthy or life-giving. It would be like dressing a swastika up in roses. Crucifixion is a thing people used to do to one another in order to bring the roughest kind of ‘justice’ to the earth, and we still do much the same thing only with different methods.

Christ’s command to ‘take up your cross and follow me’ also terrifies me. How can I face what I fear most? How can someone who is supposed to be love incarnate ask me to do this? Where is the healing? Where is the grace? Where is my escape? I ask for salvation, and I get… this?

And I face this symbol, this event, this… thing… every week at the Eucharist. And at Easter it comes home to me even more forcefully. I cannot escape the Cross, even in my mind. It is everywhere.

I look at the world and I see a Cross writ large. I see a storm everywhere on the horizon. I see war rising again. I see religion tearing communities apart. I see economic globalisation sweeping like a manic machine out of control, enforcing random discipline on markets long since decoupled from reality. I see a roll call of species brought to extinction by human activity. I see melting icebergs. I see the spectre of new plagues and old plagues returning. I see resource wars over water, oil, food.

What is there left to hope for? I could hope that none of this happens, that climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, financial crash do not touch us. That the Four Horsemen stay safely locked up. And perhaps a great global crash can still be avoided. But for many millions today, either urban poor or in war zones, it seems that the Horsemen are already riding, as they have been for centuries. If the smallest part of the worst has already happened, and we were too late to avert it, can we escape the greater part?

The Cross gives me nothing but fear. The shadow of the future is dark. I do not know how to see beyond disaster, or somehow beside disaster to another brighter option.

Worst of all, I have no assurance that a huge global disaster would not somehow be the best possible outcome at this point. Have we gone so far down a dark path that we need something of that magnitude to wake us up?

I do not want to wake up to a world in mass starvation, constant war, and screaming chaos. Even if half of the world seems already to be there. Is it selfish of me to want the First World not to fall? The Anglo-American Empire not to crumble, as other empires have?

And yet.

Somehow, when I participate in the Eucharist, that fear is gone (and I am not making this up; this happened today). There is a literal presence, somehow real, that gives me at least a temporary solace. How? Where? What is going on?

How can the Cross, a thing of death, bring salvation?

I think the only way I can start to come to understand this is to think this: Christ is not the Cross. In fact He is the Cross’s polar opposite. He is the enemy and devourer of all that destroys. He is the life that is untouched by pain and the love that is unbroken by death. He is pictured for us on the Cross only because that is where we need to find Him, because that is where we are.

There is something that looks from the outside like a paradox here, but it is not really a contradiction. When the Apostles looked back (after the Resurrection) at Christ on the Cross, they saw something entirely different from what they saw on that Friday which was not at the time Good.

There is a great truth, I think, in the old saying: ‘by His stripes we are healed’. It is even literally true, I suspect. I think what it means is something like this: we can only touch others with the experiences we have. And our spirits seek their own level, like water. Even God, the source of all good, cannot reach us if we choose at some deep inner level not to be reached; though He can send intermediaries, and use all the other channels available to Him. (And if God has infinite resources and infinite patience, then I have no doubt that He will ultimately succeed, even ‘has succeeded’ from His point of view, even if from ours it is ‘not everywhere, not yet’).

To be a ’saint’, I think, is to somehow be a sort of channel for God; a way for the Light to reach out across universes to connect to others. If some of the strange stories of the psychics and contemplatives is true, then saints continue in this mission even after death, channelling grace to the world. But if we can only reach those with whom we have some resonance, or sympathy (in the physical sense), some set of shared experiences, then in order to channel grace, those chosen (or who choose) to be saints must suffer: they must take on somehow some of the darkness in order to have it transmuted into light.

What Jesus is, I think, is the ’saint of saints’ - the ‘capstone of the arch’ - the one channel who can be always available. And to fill that role, He had to suffer.

I think the point is that Jesus did not necessarily want to suffer (that would make him sado-masochistic), but that accepting that suffering was in the world, He wanted to be present in the world in order to be present in our lives as a counterforce to that suffering. Which is a role He continues in today.

And somehow thinking of this - which is to say, thinking of us - was an antidote to the fear.

It is not the Cross that I want to embrace. It is the opposite of the Cross.

I am afraid to say yes, and I am afraid to say no (to what? I am glad I do not even know what the question is), but somehow in the middle of it all I have to do is breathe.

I was crying over you
I am smiling I think of you
Where your garden have no walls
Breathe in the air if you care, you compare, don’t say farewell
Nothing can compare
To when you roll the dice and swear your love’s for me
Nothing can compare
To when you roll the dice and swear your love’s for me

– Finlay Quaye (Dice, Much More Than


watch the sun, as it crawls across a final time

and it feels like, like it was a friend

it is watching us, and the world we set on fire

do you wonder if it feels the same?

and the sky is filled with light, can you see it?

all the black is really white, if you believe it

as your time is running out, let me take away your doubt

you can find a better place in this twilight

– Trent Reznor (In This Twilight, Year Zero, 2007)

He has not left us comfortless. He has come to us, humbling Himself and making known His love to us through the love of man. Therefore the next step of our prayer, the step by which we translate the divine love into human terms, is for those of us who know Him to think of that most loving Son of Man, our Friend. He stands before us when we think of Him, forever receiving the eternal life of God and forever transmitting that life to us through love. He has given us His name to use, as a human friend might give us his name to use when we approach a man more great than he. Let us then comfort our hearts by thinking of His human tenderness and love. Uniting our hearts with His heart (by loving Him), let us ask in His name that the life of God may be increased in us.

– Agnes Sanford (The Healing Light, 1947)

And lo, the voices of the Earth

Cried out and sounded discord

‘Mid the heaven-song of Him.

And He a-walked Him from the sea’s calm shore

And through the vale, the bittered cup to sup.

Methinks that there within the garden place

I see me of His holied self a-stripped.

No brother of the flesh might know of Him,

For God be God and man doth fear to know.

And Earth doth stand it, still a-crying out

Against this song of love.

And yet, I do to see Him sit,

Calm eyes unto the sea

And wisdomed past the tell.

– Patience Worth (quoted by Mrs John H Curran, The Sorry Tale, 1917)