The Cross: A Good Friday Meditation on World War and Holocaust

Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:15b-19, NRSV)

Oxford War Memorial, St Giles
The Oxford War Memorial, St Giles

On this day when Christians around the world remember the crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ, I’ve found my thoughts turning back to January, when I led a group of Bethel University students in studying World War I where it was fought. I don’t know if I realized it at the time, or only in retrospect, but this much is now clear:

If you go to Europe looking for world war, you’ll see crosses everywhere.

Even before we got to the cemeteries of the Western Front, we saw the foremost symbol of the world’s largest religion turned into a symbol of civic remembrance. For example, by the townsfolk of Oxford, whose war memorial at St Giles lifts one’s eyes from a simple inscription (“In memory of those who fought and those who fell, 1914-1918” — with a 1939-1945 addition carved on the steps below) upwards to an ornately decorated stone cross. (In a 1991 article for OxoniensiaAlex Bruce reported that the original design for the memorial was a “classical-type structure surmounted by a dome, supporting a figure of Victory,” but it was rejected because of fears that it would block the view of St Giles Church. Although a minority preferred a “non-sectarian cenotaph,” the memorial committee opted for a cross as its second choice.)

In London I also found myself seeing crucifixion even where there was no cross. When we visited the Tate Britain gallery, I was struck by the resemblance between one of the dead soldiers in Charles Sargeant Jagger’s bronze relief depicting the Western Front and the figure of Christ crucified in Matthias Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece:

On the Western Front itself, we began our tour in Flanders’ fields, “where the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” By the time we visited our first American cemeteries two days later, in northern France, we had seen so many such rows that I worried that we might be inured to the sight of thousands more. (Particularly since they commemorate a war that not only failed to end all war, but soon gave way to a war that left behind even larger cemeteries.)

Aisne-Marne Cemetery
The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Belleau, France

Indeed, one cemetery superintendent explained that the cross didn’t necessarily indicate religious faith: first, unlike British and French cemeteries, their American counterparts only provided the Latin cross and Star of David as options, leaving Muslims, atheists, and other groups with an odd choice; second, for unidentified remains, American cemetery designers randomly assigned crosses and Stars of David proportional to the unit’s estimated numbers of Christians and Jews (so an unknown Jewish soldier might be marked by the cross, and a Catholic or Protestant by a six-pointed star).

But that was less troubling than the way that the memorial chapels on some American sites fused the cross with symbols of warfare and nationalism. (“We have no king but the emperor,” they said…)

Between the numbing repetitiveness of seeing row after row of crosses and the contortion of a symbol of the King whose kingdom is not of this world (as he told his executioner before crucifixion) into a symbol of a secular kingdom, I began to fear that the Cross had been stripped of its dual power — to break hearts with sorrow and to mend them with hope.

But then we came to Dachau, to explore the connections between total war and genocide on the last day of our travel course… The concentration camp museum‘s introductory film emphasizes the multifarious ways in which the Nazis systematically demeaned Dachau’s prisoners, seeking to strip them of whatever shreds of dignity might remain to remind them that they were created in the image of God. And so I was ready again to reflect on the humiliation, pain, and loneliness that Jesus must have felt as he was mocked, tortured, and then crucified. I came to the site’s Catholic memorial chapel and saw the Cross as if for the first time:

Church of the Mortal Agony of Christ
Inside the Church of the Mortal Agony of Christ, Dachau

Truly, truly

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account…. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted… he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people… (Isa 53:3, 5, 7, 8)

Including the transgressions of what was done at Dachau, and of what I do (and leave undone) by thought, word, and deed, day after day.

And yet… “Out of his anguish he shall see light;he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11). It is too soon to say the Hallelujahs of Easter. But there is hope in the Cross even still.

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