I’ve gotta share another snippet from the Wisdom of Solomon that I read last night. It was really cool! This is from Wisdom 14:1-7.
1 Again, one preparing to sail and about to voyage over raging waves calls upon a piece of wood more fragile than the ship which carries him.
The “piece of wood” mentioned here is a carved wooden idol, which the end of chapter 13 was criticizing. This verse points out that a sailing ship is far sturdier than a tiny carving, and yet idolaters put more trust in the carving than the actual ship they’re riding!
2 For it was desire for gain that planned that vessel, and wisdom was the craftsman who built it; 3 but it is thy providence, O Father, that steers its course, because thou hast given it a path in the sea, and a safe way through the waves, 4 showing that thou canst save from every danger, so that even if a man lacks skill, he may put to sea.
These verses give appropriate praise and recognition to the work of human hands – ships are useful things made by skilled people that allow even amateurs to travel across the seas. And yet, despite this work of human craftsmanship, behind it remains the reality that God “gives it a path in the sea” and God who keeps the ship safe “from every danger.” (Remember Israelites were not seafarers, so the sea was always an object of fear and a symbol of chaos and evil. As a result they had a heightened sense of God’s providence over something as dangerous as naval travel.)
5 It is thy will that works of thy wisdom should not be without effect; therefore men trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood, and passing through the billows on a raft they come safely to land.
It’s God’s will that enables God-given wisdom to produce useful things like ships. And because of this grace, humans sometimes misapply their appreciation to their idols instead of to the true God when they’re brought through a storm at sea in safety.
6 For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing, the hope of the world took refuge on a raft, and guided by thy hand left to the world the seed of a new generation.
Here we see Noah and his ark as an example. The wicked inhabitants of the world were drowned in the flood, and the sole survivors were in one boat (here called a raft, emphasizing its tininess compared to the enormity of the flood). God guided that ark safely, preserving the beginnings of a renewed world within it.
7 For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.
Of course, remaining in context, this refers to the ark. But hey, the Bible is also a Christian book; it often has double meanings which are prophetic in nature. And this is a pretty obvious reference. The ark certainly carried a “righteous man” (Noah) from the flooded world to the renewed world, but there is a greater example: the Righteous One (Jesus) was carried by a wooden cross.
The ark is blessed by its holy use of saving God’s family. How much more blessed is the cross of Christ that saves all! It delivered our sins to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness to us. Of course, the primary result of that act of atonement is to love and serve the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But at the same time, there is an honorable place for the memory of that which was used along the way. For our salvation in Christ is not just some spiritual reality, but also very physical – he was physically tortured, died, and resurrected.
In a way, the cross was a participant in the atonement. Just as humanity was represented in Christ, I think it’s safe to say that creation was represented in the cross. After all, redemption is for the created order as well as the human race. We are to love God first, neighbor likewise, but if we keep in mind that Garden of Eden situation as well then we get an oft-forgotten reminder that we should also live at peace with the rest of creation. The “blessedness” of the cross, then, can be something of a reminder for us on that front – Christianity is a physical as well as spiritual religion.
Therefore, there is a place for physical objects in Christian religious contexts, especially the cross. The challenge is to remember to make the distinction between “blessed is the cross” and “holy is the cross.” It is appropriate to show respect and veneration toward the instrument of our salvation, but we cannot treat it as the source of our salvation. It’s an instrument that blesses us, not a source of holiness for us – big difference! That’s why the cross is the #1 Christian symbol, and the most prominent image in Christian art. And for Christian traditions that struggle to find the appropriate place for art in their worship spaces, the cross is the best place to start.