Standing in line to tour the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, I got into a lengthy discussion of recent history with my sister-in-law’s cousin, Attila (“the Hun,” as he likes to say). The English conversation had become quite pointed when I noticed the woman standing behind him was nodding.
Indeed, she stepped forward and interjected her own point.
Attila turned in surprise and then we included her in. Eventually she introduced herself as a tourist from Berkeley, California–which means she lives about 50 miles away from me.
I noticed she kept staring at me, but didn’t think anything of it until she blurted out her question. “Why do you wear that cross around your neck?”
I fingered the gold cross. “As a symbol of my faith.”
“Why? Are you some sort of Catholic?”
I grew up in San Pedro, California, the port of Los Angeles and home to many Mediterranean immigrant fishermen. The Catholics in our town (that was me as a child) had two large Catholic churches to choose from: Mary Star of the Sea or Holy Trinity. Women always wore small gold crucifixes around their necks when I was growing up; I thought it was a badge of adulthood.
My own mother, a native of Milazzo, Sicily, wore a small gold saint’s medal around her neck as long as I could remember. She never took it off–her godmother had given it to her at birth.
Somehow, I never got a fine gold necklace like my mother and countless friends wore. (I didn’t get my ears pierced at birth, either. My mother was a modern Americanized woman). So, when I became a Christian as a teenager, I bought myself a cross necklace, latched it around my neck and never took it off.
Until it broke or I lost it, and then I bought a new one.
I never thought anything about it until the woman in Budapest asked her perplexed question.
“No, I’m not a Catholic anymore,” I said. “I attend a Lutheran church, now.”
This smart Berkeley sophisticate was still confused. “Do Protestants wear crucifixes?”
Attila, of Jewish heritage and a Nazi occupation survivor, raised his eyebrows at me.
I seldom think about it except when I pull it out of my clothes or when it twists around my neck during aerobics. It had not occured to me Atttila and his Jewish relatives might find it curious, too.
So much for cultural awareness.
“Actually, this is a simple cross,” I explained. “Protestants don’t wear crucifixes–which have Christ’s figure on them. I wear it to remind myself of what I believe and who I belong to. It marks me as a Christian.”
As my friend Kay Strom demonstrated when she had a Coptic cross tattooed on her forearm, it’s helpful for me remember just who I worship in our secularized society, and to be marked as such. (See my blog post Tattooing Your Soul ).
But apparently many Christians don’t see it the same way.
Several months ago a woman I’ve known 15 years and attended church with, approached me on the same topic. “I’ve noticed you always wear a cross and I wondered why. It also made me wonder if I ought to do the same thing myself.”
It told her to wear a cross only if she wanted to.
We don’t have to wear jewelry or have crosses tattooed to our arms to demonstrate to the world we are Christians. They should know we are Christians by our love, by our willingness to forgive, and by our open hands to God’s creation.
The cross is an offense to some, and can be downright dangerous if you wear it in the wrong place (I hid it under my clothes in London). It can open doors for discussion as it did in Budapest, or remind other believers of how you should behave if you proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the first century, wearing a cross around your neck would be the equivalent today of wearing an electric chair medallion–it was an offensive way to kill criminals.
And yet, it’s the way God redeemed the world.
That’s why I wear it –in thankfulness to the one who saved even sinful me.
Thanks be to God.