The Church has some peculiar observances. One such “feast” occurs every year on September 14: Holy Cross Day.[1] Celebrating the saving work of Christ, along with remembering the Patriarchs and Saints, has long been the custom of the church calendar, and understandably so. But what about inanimate objects — a crossbeam of wood (the patibulum) and its vertical support?

As it turns out, Hoy Cross Day is not the only commemoration of the Cross. Several other feast days punctuate the calendar, none of which focus on the instrument of the crucifixion per se but rather the person mounted to it and the event known as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is the crucified Christ that renders the crucifix (or, simply, “the cross”) meaningful and significant. While Good Friday is dedicated to the Passion of Christ and the crucifixion, Holy Cross feast day draws into sustained focus the instrument of salvation and the throne of our God and King, Jesus of Nazareth.[2] The cross, then, with Christ crucified upon it is the ultimate revelation of who God is and how He is toward us.

Our forefathers dedicated Holy Cross Day to jolt the Church into remembrance that Christianity is not principally about ethics. It was the cross on the hill rather than the Sermon on the Mount that produced the impact of Christianity upon the world. Let the world not forget it, nor especially the Church. They believed the Church needed to be repeatedly brought back to this touchstone lest Christianity go off the rails into Gnosticism or Docetism, with their denials of the body’s value. The Church emerged, they said, not so much because of the mores of ‘the Man from Galilee,’ but because Christ was crucified as the act of God. That is what makes the cross “holy.”

It was the cross on the hill rather than the Sermon on the Mount that produced the impact of Christianity upon the world.

But not only was the crucifixion the act of redemption, it is also the greatest moment of divine revelation. This is Christianity. And this is the Reformation. What Luther taught was not that God is somehow there, despite pain, humiliation, anguish, failure, sin, and death. Instead, he taught that God Himself confronts us in person and makes His presence near, in and through pain, humiliation, anguish, failure, sin and death. The contrary things of failure, sin, and death constitute the raw material which God personally transforms in the human heart. God reveals Himself through a contrary form — cruciform. Cross, not glory. Crucifixion, not glorification. That is how it is on this side of Heaven. It is precisely within this domain that we see God as He is in Himself.

Notwithstanding the sanitizing efforts by many, the cross cannot be marginalized within, let alone eliminated from, biblical Christian faith. The identity and relevance of Christianity are both irrevocably tied up with the crucified Christ, like it or not. Without the crucified Christ one may have Islam’s seventh-century hagiographical hearsay Jesus according to the illegitimate testimony of Muhammad or Jesus as just another one of the Bahai faith’s cornucopia of prophets or, more vacuous still, contemporary liberalism’s quasi-religious social club’s icon of philanthropic enterprises — ‘Jesus the iconic giver.’ What one does not have is the Gospel. And if you do not have the Gospel, you have got a treadmill religion-of-works. As disciples of Jesus, we have got to ensure that we talk about the Cross not as a fashion statement or the sanitized symbol, scrubbed of blood and vacant, but that we are setting forth both literally and by way of proclamation God crucified to death as the death of death and that which alone secures our pardon from a crucifixion we ourselves deserve both individually and collectively. It is that real. It is that graphic. It is that frightening and, even more so, that glorious and good.

If you do not have the Gospel, you have got a treadmill religion-of-works

All too often the Cross is relegated to one small area of Christian doctrine. But the Cross stamps an indelible and decisive impression upon every facet of the Christian faith. In other words, it is not just about soteriology (the doctrines of salvation). It directs our ecclesiology, our vocations, our sanctification, our ethics, our families, you name it.

“The cross puts everything to the test,” said Luther. As he thought on 1 Corinthians 1:23 he said: “We preach Christ crucified.” Christian thinking about God comes to a blunt halt at the foot of the Cross, coagulated with “the blood of God,” as Acts 20:28 puts it. The very existence of the Cross and of the crucified Christ forces us to make a crucial decision: Will we look for God somewhere else, or will we own what God Himself has presented as His own self-disclosure — the crucified Christ — as the basis of our knowledge of God and how we live before Him?

The cross marks a dead end for most of our musings about God and opens the way to an authentically Christian understanding of the, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the One whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped as the only true and living God. The crucified Christ presents us with a riddle, with a mystery, and the solution of that riddle holds the key to the Christian understanding of the nature and purposes of God, of human nature, and destiny. It is a crucial mystery, because the identity and relevance of the Christian faith are ultimately bound up with it and cannot be separated from it. For this one reason and only this one reason: It is a fact. Jesus was crucified to death.

A fact is, by definition, something—an occurrence or event—that happened. This is the great rub of Christianity, the pebble in the shoe of all those skeptics of the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. That is a stone-cold fact of history. We recite it in the creeds: “Crucified under Pontius Pilate.” They cite it in Tacitus and Josephus and Pliny and others, “He was put to death by the procurator.”

This is the great rub of Christianity, the pebble in the shoe of all those skeptics of the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. That is a stone-cold fact of history.

History, we are told, is irreversible, and we cannot undo her handiwork. Part of that history is the fact that Christian faith (the trust we have in God) was created, aroused, and shaped by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a pattern of events which lay beyond its control, and to which it could only respond in increasing wonder and amazement as its implications unfolded. Here, on that hill called Golgotha and a tomb a hundred yards away, God entered to redeem the tragic history of creation and human failure. It was the action of God to which a reaction is demanded. Christians are compelled not by a cross but the crucifix.

In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus something is “given,” something over which we have no control. We may accept it and respond to it, attempting to work out its implications for our understanding of God and the world. We may also reject it and base this understanding upon something else. But there it stands as a monument the world over: The Holy Cross. Jesus was, in fact, crucified under Pontius Pilate.

The Christian faith, then, is not first and foremost about ideas or concepts, a philosophy of ethics, or a way of life, even though it may give rise to them. At its heart lies not an idea or concept but an event in human history, an event in which God was—outside of the conception of Christ and His birth—engaged in the most intimate endeavor between the Creator and the creature, between life and death.

The criterion of what is Christian and what is not is the holy Cross of Jesus Christ, the crucial enigma which distinguishes the peculiar Christian way of understanding human existence and experience from all other viewpoints. Therefore, the point of reference for deciding which theological statements are Christian and which are not is “given” to us in the crucified Christ. Christian belief and practice are based upon it and judged by it. Holy Cross Day has stood as a monument and touchstone for nearly eighteen centuries so our generation too may confess: “Christ and Him crucified.”