Growing up fundamentalist Baptist, I was socialized to view Roman Catholic Christians with plenty of skepticism.
Any tradition or practice that might be considered Catholic carried a sort of taboo.
Expressing fondness for Mary? Celebrating Communion more than, say, four times a year? Unsanctioned usage of the word “saint?”
Such offenses were deemed “too Catholic,” and “too Catholic” was code for “not really Christian.”
This would be a good place for an eyeroll emoji. Can I put an eyeroll emoji in a Good Faith Media column? No?
Included on this list of “too-Catholic” taboos was the crucifix – an image of a cross with Jesus on it.
I can’t remember where I heard it first.
Maybe it was when a Sunday School teacher drifted off topic one morning. Maybe it came when a pastor threw a bit of offhanded shade from the pulpit.
Maybe it was a visiting evangelist who drawled something like “Catholics have it all wrong – they think Jesus is still on the cross! My Jesus isn’t on the cross – Amen?!?”
Yes, that was probably it.
I can’t say that I ever took this type of anti-Catholicism seriously. But I did understand that crucifixes weren’t for Christians like me.
When, as a teenager, I bought my first cross necklace, I chose one made up of beautiful filigree and flowers and a dove in the center.
When I graduated from seminary, I received silver Jerusalem cross jewelry as a celebratory gift.
A few years ago, I picked up a small wooden cross from a Christian bookstore and gave it a home dangling from my rear-view mirror.
No crucifixes – that is, not until 2015. That’s when I visited Lebanon with a group of Canadian Baptists.
Our group spent one afternoon sightseeing in Byblos, which is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.
Almost everything in Byblos is ancient, and many local merchants make a living selling antique items to tourists like me.
In one shop, I noticed a basket of trinkets, and I found a bronze cross pendant inside. The cross had a greenish-brown patina on it that hinted at its age. It also had, spread out across its center, a figure of Christ.
Nobody tell my seventh-grade Sunday school teacher, but I bought my first crucifix in Byblos in 2015.
If the image of a crucified Jesus seemed wrong or bothersome to some of the Christians I knew growing up, they weren’t the only ones to feel that way.
The thought of Jesus on a cross – a cruel implement of state-sanctioned violence – probably didn’t sit well with many of the people who knew Jesus, either.
In the lectionary Gospel passage for this week (John 12:20-33), Jesus is experiencing a wave of celebrity.
Rumours about how he recently raised Lazarus from the dead have become widespread, and his entrance to Jerusalem became parade-like event, with a great crowd of people looking on and celebrating.
People are clamouring to see Jesus and hear what he has to say – people including the Greek pilgrims who approach one of Jesus’ apostles to ask after him.
John’s Gospel tells us that the Jesus these pilgrims see is someone who has plenty to say about loss and death. This Jesus can envision himself in the form of a crucifix, hanging on a cross, lifted up, somehow drawing all people to himself.
When I look at the bronze cross that I brought home from abroad, and when I look at the form of a man on that cross, what I see isn’t so much taboo as it is revolutionary.
I don’t think so much about the special significance this symbol holds for many of the world’s Christians, meaningful as it is.
Instead, I marvel at the sacred audacity it takes for anyone to see a body on a cross and say, “This is what God looks like.”
In this body – this brown body, this racialized body, this peasant body, this body that is wounded and dehydrated, this body that is crying out in isolation and pain, this body that was tortured and executed by a self-interested coalition of religious and civic authorities – in this body, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
The people who sought Jesus didn’t want to envision him on a cross, but there he was. There God was.
The image of Jesus on the cross, described in the Gospels and symbolized in Christian iconography, invites us to consider how else we might see God dwelling in unexpected, challenging places.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly. The previous articles in the series are:
Sneaking Off to Mass and Returning with a Face Tattoo | Jessica McDougald
Do God’s Promises Extend to Savlanut, Sarah and Tseba? | Meredith Stone
Why You Should Enter the Shadow of Lent | Fran Pratt
Lent Calls us to Embrace Foolishness | Richard Wilson
Plagues, Vaccinations and the Future | Margot Hodson
After 20-plus years in Baptist ministry, Rev. Junia Joplin (she/her) now serves on the clergy team at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto – a vibrant, inclusive, and progressive faith community and human rights church. Junia is either a basic suburban hockey mom or a sign of the apocalypse, depending on who you ask. She is a member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board.