Who Put the Roses on the Cross?

By Carl E. Braaten

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1: 18)

From the very beginning the cross has been the chief symbol of the Christian faith. If you were an archeologist digging up some ancient ruins and you came upon the symbol of the cross, you would conclude that Christians had left their mark. If you’re driving along and see a distant building displaying a cross, you know it’s a Christian church. If you are in a foreign country and come upon a group of worshipers speaking a different language, and see a priest dismiss the assembly with the sign of the cross, you will know immediately they are Christians. When I was in Jerusalem during Holy Week, I saw Christians following in the footsteps of Jesus doing the Stations of the Cross.

The apostle Paul said, “The word of the cross is the power of God unto salvation.” Two thousand years ago, a cross was raised against an Eastern sky, and from a distance you would have been able to see a tiny, insignificant speck of a human figure pinned to a cross. Considering the tremendous achievements of Greek philosophy and Roman jurisprudence, nobody would expect a world-historical event with enduring meaning to be happening on that day just outside the gate of Jerusalem. Not too many days after that seemingly unimportant event, a handful of men and women began to announce the cross as the axis of world history, and the person on that cross as the hope of the future, more important than Greek philosophy, Roman law, Jewish prophecy, or Hellenistic mystery religions.

Paul was a man who knew all about these things, and yet he preached the word of the cross. But it wasn’t easy. The intellectual elite of that time were in search of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the highest possible goals of human aspiration. Paul felt there is something downright foolish about preaching the cross as the hope of all humankind. There is something scandalous and shameful in talking about the cross. Those who believe that stuff are “fools for Christ.” There is something ugly, unaesthetic, and shabby about the word of the cross. It wasn’t easy to preach the word of the cross as the power of God unto salvation. It was felt to be in bad taste.

The Rosy Cross

As time went on, Christians began to feel that the rough wood of the cross could be made beautiful and smooth and even serve as an emblem of the triumphal achievement of the Christian Church among the potentates of world history. If Christianity was to become the victorious religion of the Roman Empire, either get rid of the cross or embellish it with jewels and roses. Well, we can’t get rid of the cross. It is here to stay.

When novelist Victor Hugo died, the French decided to secularize the Pantheon, to tear down the mighty gilt cross that loomed like the Eiffel Tower into the Parisian sky. A Christian orator stepped forth to protest the action, but he did not carry the sympathies of his audience. Indignantly he cried out, “You think you can take the cross away from the Pantheon?” They screamed back, “We have taken it away. We’ve torn it down.” And he shouted, “You’ll never take away the cross from the Pantheon.” They shouted, “It is taken away, and down with the Church.” When the shouting stopped, he quietly said, “You cannot take away the cross from the Pantheon, for the Pantheon is built in the form of the cross, and when you have taken away the cross, there will be no more Pantheon anymore.”

We cannot take the cross out of Christianity, because then it won’t be Christianity anymore. But we can do something else. We can turn the cross into something nice. We can make a beautiful cross of silver and gold and wear it as an ornament or as a good-luck charm.

Goethe wrote a little poem in Die Geheimnisse:

There the cross stands, thickly wreathed in roses.
Who put the roses on the cross?
The wreath grows bigger, so that on every side
The harsh cross is surrounded by gentleness.

So who did put the roses on the cross? I’m afraid we all do. Our Christian tradition has done it. Theologians do it, when they try to explain the cross in a way that human reason can accommodate. Clergy do it, when they integrate the cross into a triumphal procession of glamorous ceremonies. Pious lay people do it, when they superstitiously use the cross as a thing of magic, as a rabbit’s foot. So who put the roses on the cross? We all do it. It’s the biggest cover-up in world history.

The Crux of Religion

We preach the word of the cross as the power of God unto salvation, the cross of the man who was crucified, not symbolically between two pretty candles on the altar, but concretely between two thieves in the place of the skull outside the gate of the city. The cross of Jesus was the crucifixion of his own temptations to turn his status as Son of God into a lofty position of power and privilege.

If you are the Son of God, you don’t have to go the thorny way that ends on the cross. You can use your status to turn these stones into loaves of bread. If you’re so great, you may have acquired such a bag of skills and tricks that you can do almost anything on your own power and authority.

If you are the Son of God, you can plunge into some foolish experience, and you can trust that in the crunch God will bail you out. Because you are a very religious person, you can be foolhardy and pass it off as faith and trust in the loving care of your heavenly Father.

If you are the Son of God, you can expect to be great and gain some glory from your religious status. As a person with some impressive religious credentials, you can expect to be treated with deference and dignity, and placed on the roster of those who rule and make very important decisions about other people’s lives.

Now the point of the cross is this: it is the crucifixion of the worldly way of being religious. It is the crucifixion of the spiritual lust for power, privilege, and fame. That was the temptation of Jesus. And it is our temptation today. It was Jesus’ acceptance of the way to the cross that put an end to his temptations. It is the cross that spells liberation from the pathos of religion, the temptation to turn our office of ministry into a badge of superiority and privilege. It is the cross that frees us from having to rummage around for strategies of success. It is the cross that gives us courage to face up to the truth, that reveals the blasphemy of playing games with our sacred calling. It is the cross that makes us eternally suspicious of the idols, taboos, and fetishes that hide within our religious practices.

I would like to close with some of my favorite words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. … Only the suffering God can help.”

The Rev. Dr. Carl E. Braaten is professor of systematic theology, emeritus, at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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