When our family had the privilege many years ago of camping in Europe and visiting some 13 countries over a six-week period, one of the highlights of our experience was to visit some of the cemeteries in The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France with the thousands of white crosses marking the graves of the brave men and women who gave their lives fighting for the freedom of not only our nation, but of other nations as well. We’ve also had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and to view the moving scene of some 400,000 crosses marking the graves of those who have died in our nations conflicts, beginning with the American Civil War.
As you travel along the highways of our state of Montana, you will see many crosses along the roadside which—for the past 60 years—have been put up by the American Legion to mark the site where someone was killed in a highway accident. Each spring, sometime before Memorial Day, the American Legion members can be seen along the highways putting a fresh coat of paint on these markers.
The cross, of course, is a symbol of Christianity, representing the means by which our Savior, Jesus Christ, gave His life in payment for our sins. Crucifixion on a cross was a means of capital punishment brought in by the Romans. It was normally reserved for ruthless criminals who were not Roman citizens. The Jews’ method of capital punishment was by stoning, but since they were under Roman oppression, they weren’t allowed to carry out their own capital punishment (Although they did get away with stoning Stephen…Acts 7). Just as the “Fish” sign had been a symbol of the early followers of Jesus, the Cross became the symbol designating Christianity and continues to be to this day. The majority of churches are recognizable, not just from their architecture, but from the presence of crosses. Interestingly, the cross even became a popular item on all sorts of jewelry. You never see guillotines or machetes or electric chairs as part of jewelry items!
Since the cross is representative of Christianity, there are those, such as The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which protest the presence of crosses on public property, such as the roadside memorials along the highways and have lobbied on many occasions to have crosses taken down. They, and others, believe the crosses violate the “Separation of Church and State” by promoting one religion over another. The controversy over the cross is made pretty obvious when you look at different states’ policies regarding their use as roadside memorials of fatal accidents. Some states such as California, North Carolina and Oregon ban them while Alaska and West Virginia have statutes encouraging them as memorials. Texas allows them at sites of fatal car accidents but only where alcohol was a factor. Montana, as already mentioned, allows the American Legion to erect crosses at the site of all fatal accidents (Even though they don’t check first to make certain the victim was a Christian!!). Massachusetts requires that roadside “shrines” be removed 30 days after the fatality. In Nevada, highway officials ordered the removal of an 8-foot steel cross from U.S. Highway 50 near Carson City. It marked the location where a young murder victim was discovered. The Red Cross organization, because of pressure from groups such as the FFRF, has changed its international symbol to a red diamond instead of a cross.
There are other symbols of course which represent religious groups. You have, for example, the Jewish “star of David,” and the Wiccan “pentacles” or “pentagrams.” But the symbol which comes under the greatest attack is that of the cross. The cross has always brought division. If you think about it, the cross on which Jesus died not only stood between the two thieves, one of whom repented and ended up in Paradise with Jesus, and one who remained in disbelief and ended up in Hades, but it has been the great divider of all mankind ever since. The Apostle Paul said, “For the word (preaching) of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). He referred to the cross as a “stumbling block” (Gal. 4:11) because it indicates that a man can only be saved by faith in the work of Christ at the cross and not by works and that is an offense to his pride. Paul had personally discovered that. He had been very religious as a devout Jew and thought he was going to be saved by his performance, but then, as he was on the way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus, He met the risen Savior and was dramatically converted. He understood now the power of the cross, of the death and resurrection, and that Jesus’ sacrifice alone can put away sin and make one righteous. His life totally changed and he knew it was only by the grace of God, not of works on his part. He wrote: “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Gal. 6:14).
On this Memorial Day, we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives while serving in our military protecting our freedoms. Many of these were placed in graves marked by row upon row of white crosses. There is One, however, who made the real “Ultimate Sacrifice,” that is Jesus Christ, the Creator who became our Redeemer by giving His life as our substitute, bearing the penalty of our sins, so that we, through faith in Him, could have eternal life. “For God so loved the world (you and me) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Before His death, Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself. But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (Jn. 12:32,33). He wouldn’t die by stoning at the hands of the Jews, but by crucifixion on a cruel cross where He shed His blood for the forgiveness of sin, just as the Psalmist and the prophet Isaiah had prophesied some 600-700 years before (Psa. 22; Isa. 53).
What does the cross of Christ mean to you? Have you bowed at the foot of the cross acknowledging that Jesus died there for YOU, and trusted Him for eternal life? If not, this would be a great day to do so. Then you will really know what freedom is all about. Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free…If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:32,36).