A cross is an instrument of torture and execution. Anyone within the Roman Empire would have seen that symbol as a horrifying warning against crime. As Christians, we are familiar with the cross as a symbol of something far different. We set it at the front of our churches not to frighten us, but to comfort us. What caused this great reversal? Jesus Christ, dying on just such a cross, transformed even death into life.
For Jesus, the cross meant death. The cross is where he shed his blood, from head, from hands, from feet, from side, and from countless other wounds he had received from the soldiers’ scourges. He had foretold this horrifying event to his disciples on numerous occasions, but they had not understood. When Jesus was betrayed and arrested, the disciples scattered. At his death, they mourned. However, although they did not yet understand it, they had received the promise the very night before that this cross meant their salvation. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus “took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27, 28, ESV).
We could make ourselves dizzy trying to count all the miracles involved in this statement of Jesus—that his blood was in the cup, yet in his body; that he called it the blood he “poured out,” although it would not be shed until the next day; that the blood would be provided “for many,” although only a few sat around the table—but the miracle which draws all the rest together is that this, his blood, was shed “for the forgiveness of sins.” As our Catechism teaches, “in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation” (SC VI).
In this is the miracle: Jesus died so that we might live. Jesus bled from the cross, but his blood did not simply seep into the ground, nor did his flesh turn to dust (Acts 2:31). No, by his death his blood sprang into a great fountain of life, offered to us over and over. His death earned forgiveness, which is given to us in the great washing water of Baptism. It is repeatedly given to us verbally in the words of Absolution and in the proclamation of the Gospel. It is regularly offered in a way we can feel and even taste in the Sacrament of the Altar. Our Communion cups are placed on the altar, near the cross, because we confess that the blood given to us in the cup is the very same blood which was shed from Jesus’ side on the cross.
By shedding his blood and giving it to us, Christ won salvation, confirms unto us the forgiveness of all our sins, and replaces the death of sin that rests in our hearts with his own holy and everlasting life. Jesus’ great deed of love was to turn that cross into a symbol we can cling to in faith, transforming it from an instrument of death into a fountain of life.
Reverend Michael Lilienthal
Messiah Lutheran Church, Omro, WI
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Iola, WI