True symbols of faith always convey a contradiction. That's why, for the first six centuries of Christianity, followers of Jesus used "crux gemmatas" instead of the crucifixes with which most of us are familiar.
The latter depict a suffering Jesus hanging on a cross. Though such crucifixes might be actual images of what happened to Jesus on that first Good Friday afternoon, technically they aren't symbols of faith. Christians don't believe that Jesus just died for us. Our faith and salvation revolve around the contradiction of His dying and rising.
The early Christian "crux gemmata" shows that contradiction. It's a plain cross; but instead of a suffering body hanging on it, jewels decorate its surface. The cross conveys Jesus' dying; the jewels, His resurrection. Often, when I teach grade-school children about "crux gemmatas," they show they grasp the element of contradiction by spontaneously calling them "happy crosses."
Life and death
Paul shows that he also grasps the basic contradictions of faith in the second reading (Ph 1: 20-24, 27). "For to me," he writes, "life is Christ, and death is gain....I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit."
Real faith rarely can be expressed in terms of either/or. For those who faithfully follow God, it's almost always a matter of both/and. Why? Paul gets to the heart of Christian faith in the last line: "Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ." The Good News which the risen Jesus proclaims always calls us to both die and rise.
We hear in the Gospel (Mt 20: 1-16) that Matthew's community experiences the dying and rising of Jesus in a unique way. The people for whom Matthew writes are Jewish. They believe in Jesus, yet they still follow the 613 Laws of Moses. You'd find most of them praying and worshiping in their local synagogues on Friday night.
As loyal Jews, they believe their Jewish religion prepared them for the Good News Jesus proclaimed. Yet now they're faced with a contradiction. Throughout the Mediterranean world, non-Jews (Gentiles) are being welcomed into Christianity, without first converting to the religion which both the historical Jesus and they profess. On one hand, they believe people can best accept Jesus against the background of Judaism; on the other hand, they're learning that those who don't even know a lox from a bagel are living Jesus' faith just as deeply as they are.
It's no accident that a parable about a vineyard owner sending workers into the field at different hours of the day, yet paying everyone the same amount of money, is found only in Matthew's Gospel. Out of the fourth Gospel churches, only Matthew's is called to reflect on this specific faith contradiction.
But such contradictions didn't begin with Christianity. Deutero-Isaiah reminds us of that in our first reading (Is 55: 6-9). The prophet's faith is contradictory because the God he represents is contradictory. Yahweh is both close to and distant from us. "Seek Yahweh," he commands, "while He may be found; call Him while He is near."
But then he immediately changes his focus: "`For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,' says Yahweh. `As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.'"
If we were to ask Deutero-Isaiah whether God's near to us or far away, he'd answer, "Yes!" Faith is a matter of living in the midst of such contradictions. That's why, once you understand the symbolism of a "crux gemmata," modern crucifixes just don't measure up.