a sign of contradiction

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 09, 2004

A friend of a friend who teaches at Smith College in Massachusetts said that jewelry salesmen often come onto the campus and display their wares on a blanket spread out on the grass. As he was walking to class one day he passed a woman student checking out silver crosses (of the kind used as necklace pendants) and heard her ask the salesman, "How much are the ones with the little man on them?"

The controversy surrounding The Passion -- even if it serves no other purpose -- should have the wholesome effect of shocking Christians back into a recognition that the Cross was an instrument of torture and execution, and that "the little man" soldered onto the bit of metal and worn as a pin or brooch or charm represents the corpse of a Jew executed as a criminal -- or at least the last agonies of his execution. The point is not that the Cross shouldn't be used as a sign of victory, but that it's a paradoxical sign, and we need to keep before us both aspects of the paradox. Helen Hitchcock once asked how we'd view the entrance rite at Mass if the lead altar girl paraded down the main aisle holding aloft a processional noose.

As Chesterton never tired of pointing out, a cross is also a crossroads, a "sign of contradiction" that requires a decision of us -- the most important decision we will ever make. Hence the cross has always been a source of uneasiness to those for whom no parting of the ways is ever required by their convictions and for whom religion is a kind of cotton-candy. During the 1998 controversy at Georgetown over whether or not crucifixes should be removed from the classrooms, university campus minister Adam Bunnell, OFMConv., proposed that a pitcher and towel (representing Jesus' washing of his apostles' feet) would be a better symbol for Christianity, since Christ taught us to serve others. No crossroads there.

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 09, 2004 9:55 PM ET USA

    Apocrypha aside, it is evident that the ones who are so diligent in purgeing the liturgy of all hint of masculinity (getting rid of the m-word in all the hymns, etc) are also getting rid of the crucifix because it has the figure of a man on it, and reminds us that Jesus was was was a man. At Santa clara University ( a formerly Catholic university) there is only one crucifix still publicly visible. It's in the library. They put it in a stairwell.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 09, 2004 3:39 PM ET USA

    I'm starting to think the story of the unknowing child, student etc. referring to the crucifix as "the cross with the little man on it" is an apocryphal one, or at least one that has been re-used several times beyond the original incident. It's much like the retreat story about a small child saying "but I want someone with skin on" when told Jesus is always there--several people have recounted the very same occurence. Catholic urban legends travel as well as the alligator in the sewer...