Images aren’t reality, what we see can mislead us. When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion approached the Wizard’s throne room they were greeting by a huge head surrounded by gouts of fire demanding why they were there, threatening dire punishment for offending him, and sending them on a mission that meant certain death. However when Toto pulled aside the curtain, the Wizard turned out to be a rather bumbling, harmless old man of a little wisdom and lot of hot air. Which mattered? Until they had contact with the real man, there was no way forward for them, no way Dorothy could get home. True, the Wizard couldn’t help her directly, but he set events into motion that got her home.
The image of Jesus on the Cross was a nightmare in his times. Crucifixion was the punishment the Romans saved for the worst offenders, a place of grinding pain and humiliation. It punished and deterred treason, saying: “If you resist us, this will happen to you.” Deuteronomy 21:23 says: “…anyone who is hanged is a curse of God.” Probably the reason Jesus’ opponents wanted him crucified was not only to take him out of the picture but also to shame his memory and make him an outcast of the faith.
Yet this image became the image of hope 400 years later. This image proclaims that Death no long has a hold over us, that Christ has triumphed over Death and given us new life. It’s still an image of pain and shame, but pain and shame that are in the past and never will harm us again. The transformation of this image through time has been amazing, even shocking. I’m not aware of any other image that’s undergone this radical a redefinition.
What pain has a hold on us? The story Jesus refers to, the story of the Israelite being bitten by serpents in the desert as punishment for disbelief, is a story where those afflicted had to look at the source of their pain to find healing. This is as applicable for us today as it was for those ancient nomads. We need to look at the source of our pain to let God heal us. If we hide from it, we’ll never be free. The way we confront our problems is to take them to the Cross, where Christ has conquered them. The story is already done, the outcome isn’t in doubt. This is where our weakness dies, where our wounds heal, where our fear is destroyed. This is why we exalt the Cross, lift it high, celebrate this sign of contradiction. This is where the miracle of our redemption takes place.