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The Contemplative Symbolism of the Cross

 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

To Christians, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a sign of pain and suffering, yes, but it is also a sign of hope. God, in the person of Jesus, endured a horrific persecution, humiliation, and death on a cross. Because God has been there, God understands and empathizes with our persecutions, humiliations, and suffering. There are countless innocent victims of human and natural violence, and the cross reminds us that God knows the futility of senseless suffering better than anyone does. Many believe Jesus died as payment for our sins, ending the bloody sacrificial system of atonement that had been in place for countless generations. All of this and more comes to mind when reflecting on the cross.

The cross is also a contemplative mandala for a mindful life. The horizontal line represents the time continuum of our physical existence on earth, stretching from past to present to future. Every point along that time-line is a moment, and we can chose to go deep into any moment. Doing so brings a vertical line into our awareness, symbolizing our spiritual life. The vertical line stretches endlessly above and below our earth-time awareness, opening access to another dimension of experience. The spiritual dimension exists outside of time, so whenever we decide to become present to a moment, time loses its sequential nature and becomes largely irrelevant. We may choose to go deeply into the moment of smelling a rose, closing our eyes and entering the sweet fragrance. It may transport us back to a time in childhood when our father gave our mother a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day. We may remember a walk through a rose garden, holding hands with the one we loved. We may enter  springtime, with the soft green grass and the rebirth and flowering of God’s creation. All of these possibilities exist within that single moment of smelling the rose, but they exist outside of the time continuum in which we bring the petals to our nose. Here is another example: When reading a passage that moves me, I can continue reading, or I can enter into that which moves me. I can become a character in the story and place myself in the scene. Being present to a moment is experiencing the moment on a level deeper than simply reading about it. It is taking an experiential detour along the vertical dimension of the cross as opposed to floating along the horizontal in surface-consciousness. We cannot enter the moment without committing our awareness to it, whatever it may be.

Lest I paint an inaccurately restricted image, entering the moment is not about lamenting the past, projecting the future, or losing ourselves in daydreams. Rather, it is about entering a deeper dimension of our life experience and understanding that we are always at the crossroads of infinite possibilities, symbolized by the cross. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he was held at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. When he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34), Jesus invites us to meet him at that intersection. When he says he goes to prepare a place for us (John 14:3), the doorway into that place is at this intersection. It leads to heaven on earth, or as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God.

The cross not only symbolizes a passage into a deeper experience of the moments of our lives, but it also illustrates how to get past the trying times of our lives. When Jesus was on the cross, he was held at the intersection of body and spirit by the nails. Just as he did not seek to be removed from his anguish, so we cannot ignore or seek shortcuts around our suffering – it will only return to us in new form. We must go through our suffering as if nailed to it, symbolized by Jesus’ crucifixion, in order for transformation to occur, symbolized by Jesus’ resurrection.

This, then, is one reading of the contemplative symbolism of the cross. All of our opportunities for growth and transformation exist in the moment. When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to fully enter a moment, new possibilities arise and unimaginable depths of experience open to us. Contemplative practices help us to enter and experience the intersection of matter and spirit in a way that opens us to the presence of God.

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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