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Most powerful symbol

/ 01:13 AM April 01, 2015

The cross is probably one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world, generally associated with Christianity. (The Red Cross is another matter, which I’ll discuss in the second part of the column.) It is amazing how the cross, which once represented the execution of criminals, has become such a powerful symbol today.

Generally, the cross is associated with Christianity, and Holy Week becomes a time for bringing out the diverse symbolism around it. The most spectacular practice is the crucifixion in Pampanga, a voluntary act done by people as part of a panata or religious vow to ask for or to repay a favor believed granted by God.

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While the voluntary crucifixions are bloody and grisly, they pale in comparison with the crucifixions that were conducted as capital punishment. Christ was crucified by the Romans, but execution by crucifixion goes further back in time to the Persians, Carthaginians and Macedonians.

While Emperor Constantine abolished the practice of crucifixion in the year 337, it has returned in different cultures. It has been used in medieval Japan, including the execution of 23 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597. Just this year there were reports that the extremist Isis was conducting crucifixions in Iraq.

Capital punishment

The Romans used crucifixion on slaves, pirates and enemies of the state, and considered it so degrading that Roman citizens were usually exempted from this form of execution, except for high treason.

As if the crucifixion itself were not enough, the Romans prescribed a number of rituals before, during and after it, to underscore the element of public shaming and to warn others of what could happen to them if they took the path of criminals.

The rituals are well-known to Christians, especially because of the reenactment during Holy Week through street plays. There is the scourging, followed by the condemned man’s carrying of the cross through the streets, jeered by crowds of onlookers.

A complete cross would have weighed more than 100 kilos, so what usually happened was that the condemned man would just carry the crossbeam (the horizontal part of the cross), weighing “only” about 45 kilos.

The crucifixion itself involved the condemned man being tied or nailed to the cross. The usual depictions of the crucified Christ are actually mild compared with what was actually done. Nails were most probably driven into the wrist, rather than the palm, and the ones on the feet were nailed into the arches.

There have been articles done by physicians examining how cruel crucifixions were, with the crucified dying of any number of causes including shock, heart failure, asphyxiation, even massive blood poisoning. Almost as an act of kindness, Roman centurions or soldiers assigned to the execution would drive a spear into the heart of the crucified man and/or break his legs, to hasten death.

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The crucified would be left hanging on the cross as further humiliation, and to deter other criminal activities. The elements of shaming and deterrent were done on a large scale, the most infamous ones being the crucifixion in 70 AD of some 6,000 of Spartacus’ followers.

Followers of the Cross

Early Christianity did not use the cross, in part because it was a symbol of the repulsive execution of Christ. With time, however, the cross became the most powerful symbol, meant to remind Christians of the passion and death of Christ to redeem humanity. So powerful was the cross as a symbol that Christians were sometimes referred to as cruces religioso, followers of the Cross.

Also with time, the cross took on other meanings, often pagan, in folk religious practices, such as the cross supposedly being the only effective way to kill a vampire, by impalement into its heart. It was also seen as a generic way of warding off evil. You see that in the Philippines, from installing crosses on doorways to wearing the cross on a necklace or having it tattooed on the body.

There are some differences among Christians on the use of the cross. Some groups see the veneration of the cross almost as idolatry. Some Protestants are averse to the crucifix—a cross with the image of Christ on it—because it is associated with Roman Catholicism. (The crucifix is also used by Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox Catholics and Lutherans.) Others point out that it is just a difference in emphasis: Catholics tend to emphasize the suffering of Christ while Protestants prefer an empty cross to refer to a resurrected Christ, the ultimate victory over sin.

(My interest in these variations came about from medical anthropology; I was curious about how patients react to crosses in hospital rooms. Many hospitals, including those run by the government, put in a crucifix, which could offend some Protestants. Then there are Muslims who see the cross as representing Christian idolatry.)

Holiday break

I’ve asked my students in an anthropology graduate class to look at how the Holy Week is observed, and I suspect I will see a lot of reports on shopping, excursions and trips to the beach.

From one extreme of the Holy Week becoming a time of asceticism, where nearly everything from taking a bath to talking is forbidden, we’ve come to look at this period as a holiday break.

I would hope we can go for something in between: a time for reflection on the theme of sacrifice on the cross. Fr. Jimmy Sales, one of my graduate anthropology students, reminded his classmates that abstinence does not mean splurging on expensive seafood. It means eating less, going for simpler meals, and, more importantly, using the savings for good work (charitable giving, for example).

The cross has come to mean a burden we have to carry, but we can also look at it as offering insights that liberate, and redeem.

(A note about the Red Cross: This symbol was chosen originally because it represented medicine, and became a way of declaring neutrality in times of war, for places where health professionals were giving services. It is also used, in general, to mean health services, such as first aid. The cross was so associated with Christianity that Muslim countries chose a Red Crescent for their emergency medical services. A third symbol, the Red Crystal, has also been formulated, and in Israel, there is the Red Shield of David and the Magen David Adom, or the Red Star of David.)

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Christianity, cross, crucifixion, holy week, Red Cross, Romans
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