'Why on earth do people use crosses to mark road deaths,' asked my friend as we were setting the world to rights over a glass of vino. 'It seems strange,' she said, 'it's not as though they'd all be believers.'
Her question penetrated. I turned to talk to her but instead found myself looking back in time and wondering about how the symbolism of the cross had permeated my life.
In my world, the cross offered rescue from a difficult eternity. The execution of an innocent man meant that my eternal life would be blissful instead of tormented. As a young person I accepted that sacrificial exchange.
I eventually questioned that, along with a literal heaven or hell but it took longer to wonder about the desirability of eternal life. Why would I when my society still tries to live forever?
Previously fuelled by the imaginings of theologians and religious artists, this egocentricity is now given credibility by medical science. But it's still a dream state. An illusion that the essential me matters so much it must be kept alive for as long as possible.
In the Christian church we're in Lent, the run up to Easter, a journey that encourages the contemplation of death and imaginings about eternity.
We get 40 days to contemplate the story of a Jewish man, profiled as human and divine. We explore his outspokenness and compassion, his challenges to the prevailing religious system and his horrible death by crucifixion. It's an outstanding story, rich, nuanced and multi-dimensional.
When I grew up, we weren't encouraged to ask questions about belief so I didn't realise that the death of a man/god on a cross was an exploration of mortality that had appeared before in human history.
Nor did I explore the cross. Much later I wondered if it might be an archetypal image that arises in the collective unconscious. Symbolically sitting at the intersection of the material world and the unseen, spiritual realm, constantly irritating sensibilities as perception is rattled. A growth spot where meaning can flourish.
From that perspective, it's no surprise that it collides as a symbol of Roman oppression and Christian hope. Out of the debris of that wreck, the impenetrability of death is exposed as a façade. Death is ultimately without sting.
I find the universality of this struggle reassuring. To know that the wrestling with mortality, our terror of death, of extinction of the ego and the eternal exploration of who we are in the face of that is part of the human condition; a pre-requisite for living well.
Knowing this helps me enter the Easter journey in a much more mystical way. I can leave literalism at the door and let my imagination roam freely. Free to wonder about life and death without fear of consequences.
Free to let symbolism and art inspire me. Free to be moved by ancient symbols that speak to me in much the same way as I imagine the ancients were and today's planters of roadside crosses are now.
'I'm not entirely sure,' I muttered, finally coming back to the conversation, 'but I think crosses are symbols of our unknowing about life, and death. Maybe we plant them to silently mark the struggle.'
'Room for growth there then,' she mused.
Image: Jonathon Carroll in Driven to Distraction