At the time of year when the symbol of the cross is front-and-center in most Christian worship, Mormon attitudes toward the cross seem to still lean toward either indifference (“meh”) or abhorrence (“The mark of the Beast!”). Between those extremes—or apart from them—maybe there’s enough space for us to catch a glimpse of the cross as a meaningful symbol of Jesus. Five possibilities:
1. The cross might remind us of the two Great Commandments.
The vertical axis of the cross can represent our upward reaching to God—the first great commandment. The horizontal axis can represent our outward reaching to family, neighbors, and ultimately the whole of humanity—the second great commandment. And the intersection of the two can remind us that one is inseparable from (“like unto”) the other.
2. The cross might remind us that Jesus was crucified.
Jesus didn’t just die; he was killed. And he wasn’t just killed; he was crucified—literally “cross-ified,” a deliberately gruesome, painful, and public form of execution typically reserved for those considered to be threats to the peace of the Roman Empire. That is to say, Jesus wasn’t nailed to a cross because he healed sick people, fed crowds, and taught about personal salvation. Those sorts of things would surely not have drawn much attention from the powers that be, much less their deadly wrath. He was crucified because he announced, taught, and demonstrated a way of life, the Kingdom of God, that challenged the legitimacy of the current system of exploitation and corruption. And in the end, when he submitted himself to the blatant injustice of the cross, Jesus exposed the fundamental immorality of violence and those who use it.
3. The cross might remind us we must die to our old selves.
Baptism is a nice, memorable, symbolic enactment of death and rebirth. But the ultimate enactment is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The cross provides a visual, and sometimes uncomfortable, reminder that we are called to follow him by dying to our old selves, our egos, our “natural man.” And its visual presence might remind us that the challenge will probably be ongoing, not a one-time event.
4. The cross might remind us to find and follow our path.
The cross was the instrument of Jesus’s death, but scriptures also use the image to remind us we are better for having “endured the crosses of the world” (2 Nephi 9:18), and that “taking up OUR cross,” whatever that means for each of us individually, is an essential part of following Jesus (D&C 36:2).
5. The cross might remind us of Jesus.
Mormons don’t have an aversion to using and displaying religious symbols, from putting trumpet-blowing angels on our temples to hanging pictures of temples on our walls to wearing CTR rings and Young Women medallions to attaching our old missionary name tags on our scripture covers. All of those can be symbols that eventually point to Jesus, but none of them do it as directly and simply as the image of the cross.
Paul said his role was to testify of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” perhaps suggesting that the person and the event are inseparable. If so, the symbol of the cross might be worth reconsidering, especially during this season.
Before I converted to Mormonism 40+ years ago I would wear a beautiful gold cross my mother and father gave me as a Presbyterian. When I joined the church I was told we couldn’t wear them because they represented the crucifixion and not the resurrection. And that we want to memorialize the resurrection. I, of course, was obedient but always a little puzzled by this. When I look at a cross on someone’s necklace I don’t think of the crucifixion or necessarily the resurrection. I think about Jesus Christ traversing the hills of Judea healing the sick, raising the dead, bringing comfort to thousands, spreading hope of a new life to a world that had very little hope and was stuck in old traditions that were not going to bring salvation.
As I start studying church history and am becoming more familiar with the prophets of this dispensation, I remember running across something, somewhere about one of our prophets ( David O. McKay?) not liking the sign of the cross and introducing that idea into our culture. I’ll have to dig and find where I saw that. So don’t anybody ask me where I saw it, cuz I don’t remember. Regardless, when I look at a cross on somebody’s necklace I think several things; 1) that that person is a Christian and not afraid to show the world. 2) the wearing of the cross is an outward manifestation of an inward commitment. Obviously it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone wearing a cross is a Christlike person. But I think generally when a person is willing to wear a cross on any part of their body it says to me that they believe in Jesus Christ and that’s marvelous! I think I might try to find mine and hope I don’t give my kids I heard attack!
You may be recalling blogs/podcasts on my MA thesis/Book (“Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo” [John Whitmer Books, 2012), newspapers that reported my research, or saw on youtube a presentation that I gave for Sunstone. Anyhow… yes, you are correct. Although the cross taboo emerged at the grass roots of LDS Culture around the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until President David O. McKay that taboo was institutionalized, in 1957 on grounds that the symbol was “Catholic”. Prior to this time, many prominent LDS (including Church authorities) embraced and promoted the symbol of the cross.
Everyone should read Michael Reed’s book, “Banishing the Cross: Emergence of a Mormon Taboo.
KcJ. About David O. McKay, You may have read it here: http://rationalfaiths.com/banishing-the-cross/
Yeah, I really appreciate the cross. Sometimes, during the passing of the sacrament, I look up and kinda wish there was a cross at the front of the chapel that I could focus my thoughts upon. Sometimes–when I’ve had an especially rough week–I even wish it was one of the crosses that includes a hanging, bloodied representation of Jesus, again just to help really focus my thoughts.
Other times I really appreciate looking over at the sacrament table, where the emblems of Jesus’ body are enshrouded like Jesus’ body was in the tomb–a symbol of his death, just like the cross.
On fast & testimony Sundays in particular I also appreciate looking at the successive members of the congregation who stand at the pulpit bearing testimony–both in word and in living, breathing being–of the fact that Jesus lives, and also sometimes describing the crosses that Jesus is presently helping them to bear.
I am thankful for anything that helps me or anyone else center our minds on Christ.
Thank you, micheal. I did order that book yesterday. Am excited to get educated. Thanks again for the info. KJC Comment