In 71 BC, the Roman General M. Licinius Crassus defeated Spartacus and his slave revolt, and in the aftermath 6000 rebels who survived the battle were crucified along the length of the Appian Way, a cross less than every 200 yards. Crucifixion was a brutal, degrading and cruel, but not unusual, method of execution of slaves and the humblest and poorest – almost never of Roman citizens. It was, more often than not, a random, off-hand, commonplace and meaningless, terrifying lottery of death.
A hundred years later our Lord was crucified. His crucifixion was not unique, or seems unique only to us who, in imagination, tend to blot out the other thousands who died in agonizing crucifixion. The Son of God, the Word made flesh, was numbered with that nameless and powerless multitude. But he knew, and his followers came to understand, that his sacrifice was the gift and revelation of a loving and merciful God, that his death and resurrection was victory over death. By his crucifixion all things begin new. The Cross, the instrument of extreme inhumanity for the weakest, poorest and most defenseless, becomes for us the sign of hope, health and salvation.
In time the Cross became the most important and widely recognized Christian symbol, but there is an ambiguity about its significance. For Constantine the Great it promised military victory. Through the ages it was carried before many crusading armies, and became for countless peoples a reminder of imperial conquest and oppression. Enterprising explorers planted it in the midst of their conquests. For others it was a symbol of power and riches and adorns the pinnacles and facades of glorious and triumphal buildings. For many others today, it can be an element of décor, or a lucky charm, or an item of decorative jewellery.
But that is not for us who are signed with the Cross. Constantine abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire in 337 AD, and while this instrument of torture disappeared, extreme inhumanity has not. We are surrounded by the evidence and the world everywhere cries out in pain for healing. Jesus recalled the story of Moses in the wilderness and the healing and life-giving power of the pole with the serpent and said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”, and in Him we find healing and life.
Jesus is the healer, a wounded healer, and all of us who bear the sign of the Cross and follow Jesus have been given power to heal. We all know what it is to be wounded and imperfect, and what it is to be affirmed, accompanied and healed by others, themselves wounded, whose experience we trust – like a gift of new freedom, of new life. The Cross is the symbol of that gift,the new life that our Lord gives us, but also the power and gift of healing and life that we give to, and receive from, each other. The healing of the world begins with us. That is the victory of the Holy Cross. That is what we celebrate in joy.
The Rev’d. Donald W. Anderson is General Secretary, CAROA (Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas), and a friend of Holy Cross Priory.