The Old Rugged Cross ~ Fr. Shawn Gisewhite, OPI

“The Old Rugged Cross” is the title of a well-known song written by George Bennard more than a century ago (1912). Afterwards, various famous artistes, including Jim Reeves and Elvis Presley re-echoed it. The lyrics are a resource for reflection on an important event such as ‘Good Friday.’ In the midst of economic hardship, physical suffering, spiritual persecution, excruciating pain, deep sorrows and ever-mounting troubles, the cross becomes a symbol of hope. Bennard translated his profound reflection about life and the glory of the cross into music. He sings:
“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.”

The Cross is the principal symbol of Christianity and this is so because it reminds the world of the sacrificial love of Christ which he expressed to humankind through his passion and death. “As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ,” says St. Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23). In addition, the Apostle says, “the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for those who are being saved it is God’s power” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul addressed this message to the Jews who see the cross as a burden for criminals and suffering as punishment for sinners (Deuteronomy 21:20-23). Therefore, they think it is out of place to believe in someone who is crucified. On the other hand, the Greeks who were renowned thinkers and philosophers of the time saw the cross as a sign of foolishness. In all their knowledge they could not understand how God uses ‘foolish things’ to express his greatness.

St Theodore the Studite, one of the early Monks of the eastern church (Constantinople, presently Istanbul), sees a trace of the cross in the following Biblical events of the Old Testament: First, on the pile of wood on which Abraham placed his Son Isaac; second, on the wood of the ark in which Noah, his family and all animal species were saved. Furthermore, he sees the foreshadowing of the cross in the wooden staff of Moses, which changed water into blood, devoured the false snakes of the magician and divided the red sea for the salvation of the Israelites. Again, he sees an allusion of the cross in the staff of Aaron that blossomed on a single day and showed him to be the true priest.

The cross has a message for all believers today as it gives meaning to the trials and troubles in the world, and for standing as a symbol of love as well as a symbol of victory. The second chapter of the book of Sirach admonishes those who wish to serve the Lord to be prepared for temptations (2:1). Trials are an inevitable path towards the attainment of salvation and victory. Jesus emphasized this fact clearly to his followers when he says, “If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget himself, carry his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

The cross brings to memory the sacrificial love of the one who hangs there. It is a clear proof of his love, that he laid down his life for us, and challenges us to do the same for our brothers and sisters (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16). The early Church Fathers interpret the four points of the cross as symbols of the love of Christ. According to them, the vertical points signify the height and depth of his love, the horizontal points expressing the width and breadth of that love. Their interpretation is closely connected to Paul’s words that prayed for the Ephesians to have the strength to grasp the breadth, length, height and depth of his love (3:18).

The message of the cross is indeed a paradox because it seems to contradict itself, but in that contradiction is found an inherent truth (death bringing forth new life). This shows how that which is negative turns into a positive. Likewise, suffering and pain can bring about unimaginable blessings. It is within this context that we can understand why the tree of death has turned into a life-giving tree. In the very beginning, a tree brought about the fall of Adam, but in the New Testament, a tree has brought about the glory of the new Adam, Jesus Christ. This is so because by his Cross he has redeemed the world. It speaks greatly about the temporal victory of evil over what is good. The Apostles saw in the cross the secret of their success. One of them exclaims, “As for me, however, I will boast only about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

Good Friday is a day to pause and think of the meaning of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. It is also a time to reflect on how his wounds bring healing to many and how his death offers a ticket of salvation to everyone. The cross holds a place of pride in Christianity just as the incarnation and resurrection are important for Christian salvation. The hope of resurrection gives meaning to the passion and death, which is commemorated on Good Friday. The cross then becomes a symbol of hope.  Hope which blares out the message: No crown without a cross; no cross without a crown; no pain…no gain!

As we face the many trials and tribulations of life; as we struggle day to day with pain, illness, depression, anxiety, stress, financial hardship, uncertainty in its many forms…let us:
“cherish the old rugged cross,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it some day for a crown.”





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