It took time for the church to come to terms with the ignominy of the cross. Not until the fourth century did the cross become a symbol of the faith.(Scholars note that the crucifixion did not become common in art until all who had seen a real one died off)
Now,though, the symbol is everywhere: artists beat gold into the shape of the Romain execution device, baseball players cross themselves before batting, and candy confectioners even make chocolate crosses for the faithful to eat during Holy week. Strange as it may seem, Christianity has become a religion of the cross–the gallows, the electric chair, the gas chamber, in modern terms.
Normally we think of someone who dies a criminal’s death as a failure. Yet the apostle Paul would later reflect about Jesus, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” What could he mean?
On one level I think of individuals in our own time who disarm the powers. The racist sheriffs who locked Martin Luther King Jr. in jail cells, the Soviets who deported Solzhenitsyn, the Czechs who imprisoned Vaclav Havel, the Filipinos who murdered Benigno Aquino, the South African authorities who imprisoned Nelson Mandela–all these thought they were solving a problem, yet instead all ended unmasking their own violence and injustice. Moral power can have a disarming effect.
When Jesus died, even a gruff Roman soldier was moved to exclaim, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” He saw the contrast all too clearly between his brutish colleagues and their victim, who forgave them in his dying gasp. The pale figure nailed to a crossbeam revealed the ruling powers of the world as false gods who broke their own lofty promises of piety and justice. Religion, not irreligion, accused Jesus; the law, not lawlessness, had him executed. By their rigged trails, their scourging, their violent opposition to Jesus, the political and religious authorities of that day exposed themselves for what they were:upholders of the status quo, defenders of their own power only. Each assault on Jesus laid bare their illegitimacy.