Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The cross has become one of the most enduring and well-recognized Christian symbols throughout the world. You'd almost never guess that it started out as a way to kill people.
Imagine seeing a little girl with a pretty electric chair charm around her neck or watching your great aunt hang a decorative noose on her front door. That should give you an idea of how much the symbol of the cross has changed over the years. What was once an exceptionally cruel method of capital punishment has become a sign of hope and inspiration for billions.
Don't Cross the Romans
The early Christians didn't focus much on the cross right after Jesus died—probably because they actually knew what death on a cross would have looked like. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Crucifixion was a particularity terrible and humiliating punishment used throughout the Roman Empire. A victim would be stripped naked, have nails pounded through their arms or feet (or both), be placed upright on the cross, and be left to die. Since the nails alone wouldn't kill you, the death was slow. Victims often died from starvation, suffocation, or shock, and depending on the method that was used, death could take hours or days. Not exactly something you want to imagine your Savior going through.
At a Crossroads
Unlike, say, John's Gospel, Matthew's Gospel is pretty big on the humiliation that goes down on the cross. Though Matthew accepts that the cross is a necessary part of Jesus's journey to God, he doesn't sugarcoat anything:
- The Roman soldiers mock Jesus before he's nailed to the cross (27:28-29).
- He's crucified beside two bandits who yell rude stuff at him, too (27:38-40).
- Even the religious leaders rub salt in the already painful wounds: "He saved others; he cannot save himself […] Let him come down from the cross now!" (27:42).
Finally, Jesus has had enough and he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (27:46) and dies.
Nothing uplifting about that.
(Spoiler alert: Things start to look up a few days later.)