Jesus continues his farewell discourse and appears to be speaking in riddles: “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me” (Jn 16:16). We who know what is coming for Jesus understand what Jesus is talking about, but for the disciples, not so much. Jesus will be crucified and rise again from the dead. Jesus then goes on to explain further that: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn 16:20). Jesus is speaking about the same two points of reference, his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The most brutal sign of oppression during the reign of the Roman Empire was the cross. It was a weapon of terror, torture, an extreme case of punitive justice or capital punishment, and in actuality state-sanctioned terrorism. The person would be stripped of all their clothing, would be nailed by the wrists, or palms and wrists tied, nailed by the feet, and then lifted up for public display. Then would begin their humiliation, dehumanization, and long agonizing death; a sign for anyone to think twice about challenging the authority of Rome.
The disciples wept and mourned, their hopes dashed, they were stunned, ashamed, and demoralized, while others rejoiced as Jesus and the two others beside him were lifted up. The centurions flaunted their authority and prowess. Others gathered around and jeered at who they believed to be another false prophet dying on Golgotha, the hill of the skull, where so many had gone before. Where other hopes and dreams had been crushed under Roman dominance and oppression.
Jesus was sometimes described as being hung on a tree in some letters of the Bible because writing the word cross was still too raw and vivid in people’s minds. Yet, this was not the final chapter. The grief of the Apostles would turn to joy because of the Resurrection. The cross, this symbol of torture, would become a sign of victory over death and the grave.
Yet, one centurion got it right: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39)! For many Christians today, the Crucifix and Cross are no longer a sign of oppression and fear but are displayed as a sign of the triumph and victory that Jesus has won for us. They are not magic talismans, but they are sacramental signs, concrete objects that are tangible, that we can see, wear, and hold on to, for the purpose of reminding us that we have a God who understands our humanity because he lived life as we do.
Jesus cried as we cry, he laughed as we laugh, and he enjoyed table fellowship with those on the peripheries. Jesus faced rejection, misunderstanding, trials, and tribulations, he overcame conflict and rejection, he died as we will die, yet his death was not the end. Jesus ultimately conquered death, so that through our participation in his Life and Resurrection we will rise again in Christ as well.
I invite you to spend some time meditating in front of a crucifix or cross today. If you are going through a particularly rough patch, hold it in your hand, feel the wood, allow your gaze to fall upon the face and wounded body of Jesus to remind you that he understands because he experienced what we experience, and that means God experiences what we experience. When we allow him, Jesus will also embrace us with those arms outstretched to ease our suffering and pain.
Jesus is and will continue to be present with us, closer even than the crucifix we hold or look upon. If all is going well, or you just received some great news, do the same! We don’t only go to Jesus with our trials and tribulations, but our joys and celebrations as well. Simply share with him your heart and allow him to share his with you.