A living symbol can reveal to an individual hidden levels of meaning and transcendent or religious realities. The symbol points beyond itself to something that is unquantifiable, mysterious and complex, and its meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves, mirroring a transcendent reality.
In contemporary Christianity, the cross is a symbol of the atonement and reminds Christians of God’s love in sacrificing his own son for humanity. It represents Jesus’ victory over sin and death, since it is believed that through his death and resurrection he conquered death itself. Colossians 2:15, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross was rare in Christian iconography, as it depicts a purposely painful and gruesome method of public execution and Christians were reluctant to use it. The crucifix, a cross upon which the corpus, an image of Christ, is present, is not known to have been used until the 6th century AD.
The Monogrammatic Cross or Tau-Rho symbol, is composed of a tau (Τ) superimposed on a rho (Ρ). The Monogrammatic Cross was first used to abbreviate the Greek word for cross in very early New Testament manuscripts. Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th-century explained that the tau refers to the cross, and the rho refers to the Greek word “help” which has the numeric value of 100 as the letter rho has. In such a way the symbol expresses the idea that the Cross saves. The two letters tau and rho can also be found separately as symbols on early Christian ossuaries.
The reluctance of early Christians to accept the cross as a symbol is understandable. However, over time as Christianity evolved, the symbol of the cross or crucifix came to represent victory over death, eternal life and the fullness of the Good News. I asked one pilgrim on the Camino what the cross meant to him. He answered: “I imagine any number of people at that time in history may have been “hanged” on a cross. When I look at a cross, I don’t see those people; they are unknown to me. Jesus is known to me and his “acceptance” of this cross brought us hope, life and eternal salvation. So when I see a cross, I think of Jesus; when I think of Jesus, I think of this hope, a new life, and eternal salvation. As a Christian, if the symbol didn’t bring me directly to Jesus Christ, then the symbol would be empty or even idolatrous.”
Perhaps Jesus died on a tree and not on a cross. 1 Peter 2:23-24 states, Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness”. And in Acts 13:28-29 is found the following “And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulcher.” Did the Tau-Rho then evolve into the cross? If so, the most commonly identifiable symbol in Christianity, the cross, might not be a symbol of torture and death at all, but a symbol of hope and salvation.
So for me, rather than an instrument of death and torture, the cross as a symbol transcends the morbidity of the object. The crosses along the Way of St. James were silent reminders for me of the faith and hopes of 1,200 years or more of countless pilgrims seeking and believing in the promise of something better – not necessarily in this life, but in the life to follow.