What an amazing “little thing” it is — the sign of the cross. First of all the cross itself is the symbol within all Christianity. You can see it in the context of almost any church building, and it hangs within many a Christian dwelling. But now we are going to focus on a physical gesture one makes with one’s body: the sign of the cross. It is so common within both Catholic and Orthodox traditions that one hardly reflects on it. It is such a simple gesture. And for many believers it has become almost automatic. One learns it in childhood. One will make it as one begins to pray; when one enters a church; during a liturgy or prayer service; even a small thing like saying grace before a meal, etc. Its simplicity and its centrality within the Christian tradition go together, but what can it possibly mean?
There is a kind of standard theological explanation one can refer to–the cross is the instrument upon which Jesus died his salvific death and through this death we are “saved.” And making the sign of the cross, then, is a kind of physical reminder, or if you will, a kind of physical mantra, repeating the symbolic form of that awesome event. All this is true, but the problem is that words like “salvation,” “redemption,” “death on the Cross,” etc. are used without engaging the deep mystery at their roots. We feel secure if we just mouth the given doctrine in language. So we use over and over again these words until they become platitudes and religious cliches from overuse–as if we really understood the depths of the words we were using merely by repeating them. They become as automatic as that physical gesture. In order to even begin to penetrate that fog and to even approach a little bit the deep meaning of the sign of the cross in our life and its true theological significance, we need to start at a more existential point: the reality of suffering. Here we also meet all our fellow brothers and sisters in all the world religions. We all have to wrestle with the reality of suffering. Certain conservative Christians have pointed to a supposed serious difference between the central symbol of Christianity, the cross, and the central symbol of Buddhism, the Buddha sitting in a lotus position with a serene face and a faint smile. But this kind of understanding is worse than “mixing apples and oranges”–it is a travesty of understanding. For one thing, the central axiom and foundation of Buddhism is simply that to exist is to suffer. Then one would want to ask, why is the Buddha so serene–but that would take us on another journey.
Suffering is universal. We are immersed in an ocean of suffering. And here we want to include all kinds of suffering. Just now as I type these words someone is starving to death somewhere; someone in Pakistan has lost all they have in the enormous floods; someone is laying somewhere dying alone; someone is in awful physical pain from some incurable disease; someone has been betrayed by a loved one or a friend; someone has lost their job and is on the verge of becoming homeless; someone is devoured by a need for drugs or sex; someone is devoured by anger, hatred or fear; and yes even the “evil person” who is perhaps doing us or someone else harm, even that person is totally immersed in suffering–just think of all the “devils” devouring his heart with greed, hatred, lust, etc. And even with the person who seems to be well-off there is the ever-present feeling in the heart of dissatisfaction, of a constant yearning for something else, of fault-finding around us and so on. And here we meet the real Buddhist notion of suffering as that fundamental craving in our heart that leads to no end of desire. It is all suffering. We cannot find a place and stand there and say, “Ah, here there is no suffering.”
So to make the sign of the cross is, then first of all, a kind of acknowledgment that we are immersed in this sea of suffering, that we are connected to everyone’s suffering, that we ourselves know suffering simply because we exist. To make the sign of the cross with awareness, then, would be a great spiritual practice–like prostrations, like what our Orthodox friends do with their countless makings of the sign of the cross during their prayer services.
And why are we connected with everyone’s suffering? Here we will push into specifically Christian thought and into the Christian symbolism of the cross: it is because of Jesus. The particularity of that historical moment, his suffering and death on the cross, according to Christian belief, is a profound manifestation of the reality of God, among other things. And making the sign of the cross is a kind of physical reminder of the particular moment. This is the message of the Gospel of John, the gospel of the manifestation of God. We have spoken many times of the Mystery of God, and the Gospel of John says that whatever else you might intuit about God, when you look at Jesus you are looking right at the heart and mystery of God–“He who sees me, sees the Father.” And the Gospel brings it all to a focus when Jesus is on the cross. This is the ultimate manifestation of who God is. So when we make the sign of the cross we also are “replaying” as it were that manifestation of the ultimate mystery of God. God is revealed as that Total and Absolute Self-Emptying Love. From this we then see that God is within our suffering, not as some outsider looking on with pity, but as one suffering with us and in us. To borrow an image from the Old Testament, our suffering neighbor is the Burning Bush and so are we in our own suffering. And when we make the sign of the cross we also acknowledge that reality and bring it to our awareness. Indeed, to borrow something from Augustine, we could say that God is closer to us than our own suffering is. In any case, this God is present to us in our very suffering, no matter how great or how small. And through that Presence we are connected to all those who suffer, meaning to all of humanity. And by making that sign of the cross we actualize that awareness also.
Let us now recall something from our reflections on Good Friday in a previous posting. To borrow from Louis Dupres, let us again recall that famous slave hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And of course when the slaves sang this, they could answer in their hearts that yes, they were “there”–that “there” is here because He is here with them in their suffering, He is crucified in them. To make the sign of the cross, then, with awareness is to enter into that “there” and “here,” to be with Jesus in His suffering with me and with my neighbor whether he be a family member or someone 10000 miles away in Pakistan.
Now let us dispel some possible mistaken lines of thought. Let nothing said here imply that we have some explanation for the reality of suffering–there is no such thing. There are ideologies and rationalizations for suffering, religious, social, political, and these are used for manipulating or anesthetizing people so they can be “used” in some way. There are mythic “explanations” but they are of a different order. One can raise the question why does God allow suffering. Let us be clear: we have no answer. We only have our faith in an infinitely loving God who is with us in our suffering. One could say that as long as you have a finite world, contingent and dependent being(as the Buddhists would say), suffering is an inevitable fact. But that hardly seems to satisfy anyone.
Furthermore, let nothing said here imply that the proper attitude toward suffering is merely passive acceptance. Actually it is quite the opposite. If you have a toothache, you should do something about it. If we see someone suffering in a way that we can alleviate it somehow, like feeding the hungry or confronting the injustice they experience or whatever, then we should definitely give our whole being to this–but, you see, this will entail suffering on our part and we need to accept that–even to the point of giving our life. “No greater love has a person than to give his life for his friend.”(Jesus) The exercise of compassion will entail some kind suffering on our part–especially if we see the futility of it.
The presence and significance of suffering in human existence is an absolutely critical awareness for spirituality of almost any tradition–though it takes on some different tonalities in different traditions. For some people this is a very negative view and rejected. For example, many Westerners even into our time regarded Buddhism as “life-denying,” as negative, because its foundational axiom is that to exist is to suffer. One wonders how unaware those people were/are of their own existence, of what is around them, etc. But just look at the Dalai Lama, hardly a negative, morose person. He radiates joy and happiness. The point is that the two are not contradictory states of being/awareness. In a sense the duality of suffering and bliss needs to be overcome. In any case, that is why the Dalai Lama makes compassion the central point of all spiritual teaching–because we are all “in it.” Then there was the critical comment by the famous Russian theologian Alexander Schmemann concerning many liberal Christian thinkers in the 20th Century. He said that their thinking seems to imply that somehow the event of Good Friday can be “undone” if we are simply good enough, if we act nicely enough, if we are engaged in the pursuit of social justice, and so on. As if we could establish “paradise” and eliminate the “smell of death” and the fact of human suffering through the push of human progress and “undo” the darkness of Good Friday. But it is precisely on Good Friday while hanging from the cross that Jesus proclaimed to the thief, and to us, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” This is not a paradise of our doing. We proclaim, “Truly He is Risen,” AND we make the sign of the cross, and if we do it with even a semblance of the awareness of the Dalai Lama, we will be with him in the joy that surpasses understanding and at the same time in that knowledge of the reality of suffering.
The Dalia Lama has said that the goal of Buddhism (“enlightenment”) and the goal of all religion is to feel the suffering of the other as our very own. This is a very down-to-earth criterion of spiritual realization, and the result is that the act of compassion is not some external “good deed”(through which we “keep score” on our “goodness”) but our very state of being and consciousness with which we bind our wounds. The “other’s” suffering is no longer “his problem” that we might help with–it is our problem which we cannot leave unattended–if no more than to offer companionship in the sorrow. In the Gospel Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan, the religious outcast, who binds up the wounds of the man beaten up by some robbers. The religious figures and religious leaders who pass by the man in need are so full of their “religion” that they have not a clue as to what the goal of true religion is–as the Dalai Lama put it. When the Risen Christ confronts Thomas in his doubts and asks him to put forth his hand and touch the wounds that Jesus had suffered, He also is asking us not to be afraid “in the light of the Resurrection” to touch our own wounds and our own suffering because they are also His. All this symbolized and remembered in the sign of the cross.