I am a fan of the television show 'Project Runway', and this season I have been intrigued by one of the cast members, who consistently wears a necklace with the word 'atheist' on it. At first I found myself a bit taken aback by it - why would he need to announce that to the world? - but then it got me thinking. Because of course, this is just a clever inversion of what I, and millions of others, do every day: wear a cross around my neck. Isn't that announcing my beliefs to the world? What is the difference? And why do I feel that his 'atheist' necklace is somehow an affront to what I believe, who I am? And then I had to think about what it really means to wear this cross. Because, of course, lots of people wear crosses, and many times it is just because it is a pretty piece of jewelry. And this, in itself, is sort of odd. As we all know, the cross is a form of torture and death, so in some ways it is ironic that in today's world, it can be so casually ornamental. I have heard people wonder aloud why we don't just wear guillotines around our necks. Never mind that there really is a lot of jewelry in the shape of guns, knives, and skulls, the point is taken. In some sense we have domesticated both the shock and the scandal of what, for Christians, is the very source and symbol of our salvation. For this reason, many Christians I know refuse to wear one outside of worship, or if they do, they wear a cross made of nails, or bullet casings, or thorns, in order not to trivialize it.
My cross came from Tiffany. It is made of platinum and was designed by Elsa Peretti. It was an ordination present, and I almost never take it off, but I have to admit it is first and foremost an expensive necklace. To me, this does not make it any less meaningful, either religiously or personally. As a Christian who wears a cross for religious reasons, I am completely comfortable with glorifying God through beautiful objects, using our talents and resources to reflect back to God and the world the expression of our faith. This is one of the reasons we often have exquisite architecture and decoration in our churches, why faithful people have always been called to bring forth the best of what we have made in order to praise God's goodness with it.
And personally, I think of my cross as my 'medic alert bracelet.' I wear it every day because if I get hit by a bus or have a heart attack in a public place, I want those around me to know that I am a Christian. I would hope that they would pray for me, maybe even give me last rites. I also wear it, like the collar of my priesthood, as a sign to others. If someone else needs prayer, I would hope that seeing it, they know they could ask. So I do think that wearing this cross is part of my sense of being an evangelist, although I will admit that wearing it all the time sometimes keeps me from remembering the power of it. And sometimes an 'atheist' necklace has to shock me back into what it really means.
The 'atheist' necklace does something else, as well. It reminds me that I no longer live in a culture in which Christianity is assumed. Maybe I never did. But I think there are many ways that, in this country at least, those of us who are Christian assume a level of comfort with even casually expressing our beliefs because they have been more or less incorporated into community life for so long. That is not so true today, and I will admit that sometimes I am startled to realize just how much Christianity is no longer mainstream, and how comfortable those expressing alternate beliefs, or no belief at all, have become. I don't think that this is a bad thing, but I do think I may not be the only one for whom this is a learning curve. And I do think that those of us who do follow Jesus will be increasingly accountable for how we do that, and where, and what effect it has on others in the world around us. Wearing a cross may become just as startling as wearing an 'atheist' necklace. And maybe it should.
September 14th is Holy Cross day in the Episcopal Church (and others), but this year we celebrate it today, the 15th, because the 14th was a Sunday and this 'lesser feast' does not take precedence over the regularly scheduled celebration. Holy Cross Day is different from Good Friday, the day we remember Christ's death and passion. Today we commemorate the cross itself, as an instrument of our salvation, which is the central paradox of what we believe as Christians. Because of course, the cross is an instrument of torture and death, yet for followers of Jesus, it is also celebrated as ultimately, the means of resurrection. It is both life and death, darkness and light, evil and good.
Some of us wear this symbol around our necks to remind us who we are, and to let others know that, too.