The British Government is set to argue at the European Court of Human Rights that Christians do not have the right to wear a cross or crucifix openly at work. The British Government argues that there is no religious requirement for Christians to wear a cross or crucifix and so employers can forbid employees wearing a cross in places of work. Some Christians claim this is just another attack on their religious freedom and an effort to exclude religion from public life.
For many people a cross or even a crucifix is just a piece of jewelry, a trinket with no religious meaning whatsoever. Let’s face it, there is no religious requirement for any Christian to wear a cross or a crucifix. If we choose to wear a cross or crucifix it should be out of devotion.
In reality the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. To wear a cross is like wearing an image of the electric chair or the gas chamber around you neck. The earliest Christian symbol was not a cross, it was a fish. In Greek the first letter in the words Jesus Christ, Son of God Savior spells out fish. Christians would identify themselves through the symbol of a fish. This symbol is found in the ancient catacombs of Rome.
When Christians began to use the cross as a symbol of their faith they covered the cross with jewels of bright stones. They tried to cover up the harsh reality of a crucifixion. Even when Christian artist portrayed the crucified Christ they covered his nakedness with a loin cloth.
Father Ron Rolheiser who writes for many Catholic papers has this to say about the crucifixion:
“Crucifixion was devised and designed by the Romans with more than one thing in mind.
It was designed as capital punishment, to put a criminal to death, but it aimed to do a couple of other things as well. It was designed to inflict optimal physical pain. Thus the procedure was dragged out over a good number of hours and the amount of pain inflicted at any given moment was carefully calculated so as not to cause unconsciousness and thus ease the pain of the one being crucified. Indeed they sometimes even gave wine mixed with morphine to the person being crucified, not to ease his suffering, but to keep him from passing out from pain so as to have to endure it longer.
But crucifixion was designed with still another even more callous intent. It was designed to humiliate the person. Among other things, the person was stripped naked before being hung on a cross so that his genitals would be publicly exposed. As well, at the moment of death his bowels would loosen. Crucifixion clearly had humiliation in mind.
We have tended to downplay this aspect, both in our preaching and in our art. We have, as Jurgens Moltmann put it, surrounded the cross with roses, with aesthetic and antiseptic wrapping towels. But that was not the case for Jesus. His nakedness was exposed, his body publicly humiliated. That, among other reasons, is why the crucifixion was such a devastating blow to his disciples and why many of them abandoned Jesus and scattered after the crucifixion. They simply couldn’t connect this kind of humiliation with glory, divinity, and triumph.”
Even today our crucifixes cover up the nakedness, the shame Jesus endured on Calvary. We can’t handle the truth of the harsh and humiliating reality of his crucifixion.
There is no religious requirement on any of us to wear a cross or a crucifix. But there is a religious requirement on each of us to show to others the love shown to us by the crucified Christ. There is a religious requirement on each of us to work for justice and fairness in the work place. There is a religious requirement on each of us to respect the human dignity of every person we meet regardless of their faith, culture, nationality, social statue, and sexual orientation – whatever. There is a religious requirement on each of us to alleviate the suffering of Jesus as he suffers in any man, woman or child who endures hunger, homeless, unemployment, family violence and discrimination of any kind.
There is a religious requirement on each of us to be aware of and do something about the critical condition of our Earth due to climate changes. There is a religious requirement of all of us to see that Earth’s resources are justly shared. There is a religious requirement on all of us to live simply, that others may simply live. These are all serious religious requirements.
When you come to venerate the cross, as you touch its wood think for a moment of the man who hung on the cross, stripped of all human dignity and worth. He died for you, he died for me. Remember there is no religious requirement on us to wear a cross or a crucifix but there is a religious requirement on each one of us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to heal as we’ve been healed, to lift up others as we have been lifted up and to love as we all have been loved by the Crucified Christ.
Trying to be faithful to these religious requirements each day of life then we honor and glorify the Christ who loved us and gave his life for each of us. Ours are challenging religious requirements.