Friday, March 16, 2018

The Cross: 'A Triumphant and Cosmic Symbol'


Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty-fourth Day

For Great Lent I am currently reading a book entitled The Cross - History, Art and ControversyThis fine book is written by Robin M. Jensen, professor of theology at Notre Dame University. The author interprets the various ways that the Cross of Christ has been artistically conceived through the centuries, from the very beginnings of Christianity, from an insightful theological perspective. This would include a vast array of artistic expressions: crucifixes, mosaics, frescoes, icons, gems, ampullae, reliquaries, sarcophagi, pectoral crosses, miniatures; and then poetry, legends and liturgical hymnography.  To be honest, I am still working on the book, but so far it has proven to be quite illuminating as to how the "symbol" of the Cross has developed over the years, and thus manifest the Church's belief that "through the Cross, joy has come into the world." In a nice summation toward the end of Ch. 2, Prof. Jensen writes the following about how the early Christians surmounted the "scandal of the Cross" and understood its deeper "mystical significance:"

"Rather than allow the cross to be a figure of scandal or shame, Christians regarded it as a triumphant and potent cosmic symbol. It summed up the story of their salvation insofar as it overrode the sin of the first humans in the Garden of Eden and heralded the return of the savior, the last judgment, the resurrection of the righteous, and the New Creation. Its very shape, pointing in all four cardinal directions, had a mystical significance. As an emblem of hope, Christians received it on their foreheads at baptism and made it daily on their bodies. Invisible to ordinary eyes,  the sign of the cross was vividly apparent to those with supernatural vision. It offered protection from demons and identified the members of the flock to their Good Shepherd,, at once their holy talisman and a reminder of their own potential for glory. Martyrs accepted death, believing their imitation of Christ's crucifixion  assured them of a triumphant (and immediate) admission to heaven." (P. 48)

Throughout the book, the author provides many wonderful texts from the Church Fathers on the meaning of the Cross. These passages help to orient the reader toward the deeper meaning of the Cross and its ongoing artistic development. This would include a straightforward recognition of the "scandal" caused by Christ dying on the Cross. St. Justin Martyr (+165) is an early example of this:

"They proclaim our madness in the fact that we give to a crucified man a place, second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed." (Apology, 13)

St. John Chrysostom (+407) interprets the meaning of "the sign of the Son of Man" to refer to the Cross of Christ:

"Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven, that is, the cross being brighter than the sun, since this latter will be darkened, and hide himself, and the former will appear where it would not appear, unless it were brighter than the beams of the sun. (Hom. Matt. 76.3)

In a fascinating chapter covering the discovery of the "True Cross" in Jerusalem in the fourth century, we hear from St. Paulinus of Nola (+5th c.):

"Indeed, this cross of inanimate wood has living power, and even since its discovery it has lent its wood to the countless almost daily prayers of men. Yet it suffers no diminution; though daily divided, it seems to remain whole to those who lift it, and always entire to those who consecrate it. Assuredly it draws this power of incorruptibility, this undiminished integrity, from the Blood of that Flesh which endured death yet did not see corruption." (Ep. 31. 6)

In a celebrated passage from his work On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius the Great (+373) writes that there is something nevertheless "reasonable" about the Cross, because the salvation of all could only be displayed in such a public manner. Christ thus became conspicuous to all the nations by being raised up on the Cross in such a manner. With this two outstretched arms He embraces both the Jews and the Gentiles. St. Athanasius also draws the inseparable link between the death of Christ and His resurrection. 

"The death on the Cross, then, for us has proved seemly and fitting, and its cause has been shown to be reasonable in every respect and it may justly be argued that in no other way than by the Cross was it right for the salvation of all to the place. For even thus - not even on the Cross - did He leave Himself concealed; but far otherwise, while He made creation witness to the presence of its Maker, he suffered not the temple of His body to remain long, but having merely shown it to be dead, by the contact of death with it, He straightway raised it up on the third day, bearing away, as the mark of victory and the triumph over death, the incorruptibility and impassibility which resulted to His body." (Incur. 26)

And there is a wonderful theological reflection cast in a poetic manner assigned to an unknown writer described as "Ps.Theophilus" (the real Theophilus being a second c. writer). You can see how such passages helped shape our later liturgical hymnography:

The Cross purifies the man that
pursues the energies cast forth from it.
The Cross is the holy mystery,
The Cross is the consolation of those who are
in distress because of their sins.
The Cross is the straight way, not leading astray
those who walk on it when they are estranged.
The Cross is the high tower which
receives those who are running to it.
The Cross is the ladder which raises
the human being to the sky.
The Cross is the garment which the
Christians are wearing.
The Cross is the helper
of the poor and the help for those who are distressed.
(Sermon the Cross and the Good Thief)

I should also point out that it was probably the North African thinker, Tertullian, who first explicitly mentioned how Christians "signed" themselves with the Cross - at all times as you will read below. It is difficult to determine just how early Christians began to actually do this, but Tertullian does speak of it as an established tradition at a very early date (late 2nd- early 3rd c.):

" ... at every forward step and rising, at every entrance and exit, when we dress, when we put on our shoes, when we bathe, when we dine, when we light our lamps, on our couches, on our seats, in everything that we do, we trace this sign upon or foreheads." (Cor. 3)

As Orthodox Christians, we do this to this day with the same faith in the One who died on the Cross to deliver us from sin and death. The resurrection of Christ "proves" the truthfulness of that claim. We thus belong to the Crucified One and accept the "scandal of the Cross" as the power of God unto salvation.

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