Wandering to church on Passion Sunday, I was musing on a short film I had been watching the previous night at a friend’s house. Mike is in advertising, and had been responsible for a glamorous-looking commercial that rebranded a building society with some fancy new name.
It is amazing how something can be rebranded — made to mean something different, made to convey a whole new set of associations. Then, as these things sometimes do, this playful reflection smashed right into the sermon I was preparing to preach. I suddenly realised that what I was going to say was really all about the rebranding of the cross.
One of the most outrageous rebrandings in world history is what the Emperor Constantine managed to do with the cross. A hated symbol of Roman oppression, a terrifying instrument of torture, was transformed into the logo of the new Christian Roman Empire. What was once the sign of vigorous anti-imperialism became the club badge of some new imperial power.
That is the most extraordinary reversal. Yet such was the amazing power of this rebranding exercise that something designed to give people the most frightening and painful death could end up being worn as a pretty piece of jewellery.
Before the fourth century, Christians were a persecuted minority, thrown to the lions in the Coliseum. By AD 311, they were tolerated by the Romans. Just 80 years later, after Constantine’s conversion, his successor Theodosius made Christianity the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire. In AD 436 , all non-Christians were banned from the Roman army. The transformation was complete.
One can read this history as a story of the power of God to convert. Or one can read it as a takeover bid, the Romans killing Christ, then hijacking his religion. And, while neither the naïve nor the cynical reading will do, it would be dangerous not to have some appreciation of the extent to which the Church’s complicity with the powers of this world — here represented by the Roman Empire — can shape some of the more fundamental themes of our faith, including the meaning of the cross.
What this means is that we often ought to be more suspicious of the ways in which we allow this most powerful Christian symbol to be interpreted by those with diverse motives. Sure, some of these understandings are very old. But we must not let the place the cross plays in human salvation lead us away from an appreciation of its original horror. The need to reclaim the cross from its rebranding by the Roman Empire is one of the great imaginative tasks of Holy Week.
Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.