Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Memory of a Cross Burning

As wheels turn into the curve, golden-red flashes of light rise out of the darkness, glimpses caught between fully-fleshed branches waving in the late-evening breeze.

I press the accelerator ahead, curtains of leaves rapidly moving aside and closing behind me until I am there.

Still rooted in soil, the entire height of a twenty-five-foot tree is alight. No remaining bark covers the armless trunk, its brittle honeycombed cells that once swelled with water now licking flames. Red swirled black embers dance in a frenzy around the fully immersed tree, making it seem larger and taller than it actually is.

To see fire shooting upwards out of the earth in a moving-but-not-moving pillar extending high above your head is almost indescribable, the majestic vision of it all.

Yet although I know what the burning object really is--just a dead tree--all I can see is a burning cross.

Today, I asked my mother if I ever actualy saw a cross burning, because in a far-away childhood memory, I did.

She says no, she doesn't think so. I'm not sure. Maybe it's Hollywood's Forrest Gump I'm remembering instead.

My mother then recounts a scene from her youth when a cross was burned at the crossroads a few steps from my childhood home. Maybe it's her story told before that my mind is claiming as its own.

I have grown up in the South, in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was active in promoting racism, where one of the governors elected in my lifetime was actually a former Klan leader. In other words, I'm not that far removed from a time when too many individuals found it acceptable to burn crosses on people's lawns...or from a culture where, sadly, some still do.

Such an action made a statement, captured people's attention, engendered fear...just as this burning tree has captured mine and draws me back further in time to another cross.

I've never really thought about it before, but the Romans' use of the cross as a method of execution was really quite brilliant as a tool for instilling fear and maintaining control of a people from afar. To instill that fear, a people needed reminders...very visual, vivid reminders of what would happen if they were to cross the reigning government.

Execution by crucifixion did just that--captured people's attention and forced them to submit to Roman authority if for no other reason than out of fear.

And then what?

What happened to the cross after Jesus died on it? The Bible doesn't say. I've read the stories of those who claim to have fragments hidden away...somewhere...maybe.

But my mind wonders at the mystery.

In a time period before power tools and chain saws? In a day when men would have cut down the wood for each rough-hewn cross with hand-forged axes? It seems more than likely that the cross upon which Jesus died was likely the same cross that many men before and many men after him also died upon.

How much blood was on that cross?

How many nails driven and re-driven into its beams?

How many crimes meted out judgment for as it hung suspended?

How many prayers to God whispered from its finality?

And then, it lay in wait to be used again...and again...and again, until perhaps any remaining bark fell off, its cell walls slowly gave way to the curse of death, and its visible decay made it useless.

What then? Was my Savior's cross thrown in the rubbish heap to rot and return to the earth that first gave it birth?

Or was there another cross burning in ancient times?

Maybe. Maybe, those splintered, blood- and sweat-soaked crosses were all joined together and set alight, flames burning high and hot against another night sky.

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