In recent days, in association with the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, chaos has once again broken out across the Middle East. One of the first parts of the chaos was a mob assault on the US Embassy in Cairo. As events have unfolded, including the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, what seemed like a just another anti-American protest has taken on darker hues.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of this episode there reporters quoted Egyptian protesters to be chanting“Sons of the Cross, anything but our beloved Mohammed.” This a wonderful and striking expression with which I was not familiar. It made me wonder if those Egyptian Muslims may, ironically, pointed us to a great truth about ourselves.
It is not a phrase that appears much in academic or even popular literature. A search of three major databases produced only one result. So, I consulted an Egyptian friend who explained that Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox) Christians have a small tattoo of the cross on their wrists and that Christians are often referred to by Egyptian Muslims as “sons of the cross.”
It is an almost apostolic-era phenomenon: the critics of Jesus’ disciples invent a name, which they intend as an insult and believers take it up as a badge of honor (Acts 11:26; 1Pet 4:16). Where the cross was a scandal to the Romans and a cause of offense to Jews (Gal 5:11), for Paul it became a source and basis for boasting (Gal 6:14).
How could something so disgusting as a bloody cross, the Roman instrument of capital punishment, become a source of confidence? Because it represented the finished work of God the Son, “who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is [now] seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
For believers in the crucified, naked, and humiliated Christ, his cross is the symbol of our new identity, of our union with his obedient shame and death for us. He was crucified outside the camp (Heb 13:13) where the ritually unclean things were discarded. He was made to be unclean, to be sin for us, that we might become (by grace alone, through faith alone) the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). As a symbol the cross is what literary scholars call a synecdoche, a part for the whole. It represents not only his “passion” at the end of his life (Latin, passio = to suffer) but also his active obedience before and during the passion (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 37). He suffered as he obeyed and he obeyed as he suffered and the cross was the culmination of it all. Paradoxically, the cross was not only his humiliation but also his exaltation.
“‘and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12:32-33)
The mob shouted “Sons of the Cross!” and indeed we are. Those who have been given new life, who have been given the gift of faith, through which we are united to Christ (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 30), are his sons, by adoption (Rom 9:4; Eph 1:5), and if so they are truly Sons of the Cross. We can be thankful today for the mysterious providence of God whereby the angry chants of Egyptian Muslims have become a great reminder of God’s undeserved favor to helpless sinners.