In the raw history of it, Jesus of Nazareth was arrested and executed because he challenged the church/state collaboration that was oppressing his people. Crucifixion was reserved for special criminals, those who were seen as a threat to the social order, which at the time was completely top heavy – the masters were in charge, everybody else served them and God was definitely on their side – the poor were poor because they were meant to be poor. Aside from the intense pain inflicted on a criminal by being nailed to a piece of wood by the wrists and strung up so the victim’s own weight would put pressure on the nails and keep the pain going, there was the message: “this is what will happen to you if you step out of line”. The cross wasn’t on top of a hill by accident - the rulers wanted everybody to see the consequences of crossing the masters.
The way the cross of Jesus completely flipped the symbolism has to do with two things.
The first is the Christian belief that Jesus was divine, sent by his heavenly father to take on human form and suffer death as a way of freeing the human race from the burden of our sins. Our sins were a barrier between us and God – God tore away the barrier in the most dramatic way possible. The resurrection of Jeus confirmed this and opened the way to redemption to all believers who would accept the message.
The second is a bit less obvious. In the vast majority of instances, Jesus on the cross is depicted with the nails through his palms and his hands wide open despite the fact that the nails of crucifixion went through the wrists. Nails through the palms would have torn through the hands and dropped the criminal on his face as soon as the cross was raised. In this case, however, the message is more important than the facts (it frequently is). The choice of depicting Jesus on the cross with his hands and arms open wide changes the message from one of suffering to one of acceptance and welcome. Jesus triumphs over death by accepting and welcoming it – making good on the promise of Gethsemane: “Not my will but thine be done, Oh Lord!”.
With Jesus, we transcend the human condition by embracing it, not by denying it. The fact of the matter is that only energy is eternal. All matter, living or dead, from the tiniest bacteria to a distant sun a hundred times the size of our own, is in a constant process of coming in and going out of existence. Attempting to deny this and seek symbolic reinforcements for a false sense of immortality (those rulers who crucified Jesus, for instance) is the root of human evil. Accepting our temporary condition as the will of creation and making peace with its limits is the source of all that is good in humanity. The Good Friday image of a god accepting his own death is an image that goes to the heart of human consciousness.
Have a good Friday.