The tree of life: The Cross as a symbol of mercy, wisdom, life and liberation

13 April 2017 | by Frances Young



Language and words alone will never be enough to enable us to understand the mystery of Christ’s brutal death and Resurrection. Only if we explore its symbolism will we recognise the Cross as a symbol of mercy, wisdom, life and liberation

Scratched into a stone in the servants’ quarters of the old Roman Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill is the earliest known image of the Crucifixion – a cartoon, a graffito discovered in 1856. A person is sketched raising his hand towards a crucified figure which, towering over him, has a donkey’s head.

The rough lettering below it reads when translated, “Alexamenos worships his god”. It is a striking reminder of the shame and ridicule the Cross would evoke, and perhaps the reason why no early Christian depictions of Christ on the Cross have been found: it was a symbol of disgrace and defeat.

Or was it? To my amazement, reflection on early Christian material suggests that from the beginning the Cross, celebrated in cryptic signs and symbols, signified not suffering and death, but wisdom, life and liberation. And it was symbolic meanings that mattered, not the literal depiction of that most cruel form of public execution.

Many years ago on a cycling holiday in France, I wandered into an old church, partly tumbledown, and there I saw an extraordinary modern crucifix: a couple of flat pieces of wood, one a cross shape, the other forming a distinctly sinuous figure – a sort of “serpent-Christ”, I thought.

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