The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.

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The Cult of the Cross: The New Tree of Life

Medieval Image of the Cross as the Tree of Life

One third-century image of the Cross worth considering from the literature surrounding the Cult of the Cross (previous posts here) is that of the Cross as a tree that brings life to the world.  Pseudo-Hippolytus proclaims in Paschal Homily 51:

This tree is my everlasting salvation.  It is my food, a shared banquet.  Its roots and the spread of its branches are my own roots and extension.  In its shade, as in a breeze, I luxuriate and am cared for.  Its shade I take for my resting place; in my flight from oppressive heat it is a source of refreshing dew for me.  Its blossoms are my own, my utter delight its fruits, saved from the beginning for my harvest.  Food for my hunger and well-spring for my thirst, it is also a covering for my nakedness, with the spirit of life as its leaves.  Far from me henceforth the fig leaves!  Fearful of God, I find it a place of safety; when unsteady, a source of stability.  In the face of a struggle, I look to it as a prize; in victory, my trophy.  It is the narrow path, the restricted road.  It is Jacob’s ladder, the passage of angels, at whose summit the Lord is affixed.  This tree, the plant of immortality, rears from earth to reach as high as heaven, fixing the Lord between heaven and earth.  It is the foundation and stabilizer of the universe, undergirding the world that we inhabit.  It is the binding force of the world and holds together all the varieties that human life encompasses.  It is riveted into a unity by the invisible bonds of the Spirit, so that its connection with God can never be severed.  Brushing heaven with its uppermost branches, it remains fixed in the earth and, between the two points, its huge hands completely enfold the stirring of the air.  As a single whole it penetrates all things and all places. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 81)

Those looking for a Great Apostasy or papist idolatry need look no further.  Those, however, with a discerning mind, will see here the cross being a symbol for Christ, for his atoning work achieved for us on the tree.  What our foe intended for our ruin, an instrument of shameful death and destruction, has become for us the very source of life.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross 2000(ish) years ago, we can taste true life now and live forevermore after the Resurrection.

This is the message of the Cross, the point of the image of the Cross as the tree of life.

For those looking for other beautiful images of the Cross, check out the Dream of the Rood.

The “Cult” of the Cross?

Fresco of Crucifixion at Kolossi Castle, Cyprus

I have previously posted here about the Cult of the Cross (here, here, and here).  What do we mean by cult?

We do not mean a fringe religious group or behaviour or brainwashing or heterodox community of persons.  That is an entirely different definition of cult although both come from the Latin word cultus.

For our purposes, we will consider the cult to be the devotional aspects of something, including feasts, liturgies, meditations, art, poetry, relics, legends, and other spiritual practices.  When we discuss the “Cult of the Saints”, for example, we do not mean simply the lives of the Saints or the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that there is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and worshipping at the foot of the Sapphire Throne in the Heavens.  The Cult of the Saints includes hagiography, prayers about and to saints, relics, art, liturgies, feasts, and so on and so forth.

The Cult of the Cross, especially, does not include what we call “theology.”  This is not because theology has nothing to say about the Cross; indeed, a large portion of the reasoned discussion of God’s Revelation to us and action in History is devoted to the Cross.  Furthermore, there is a lot interplay between the Theology of the Cross and the Cult of the Cross.  When each is operating as it should, they have blessed and beneficial interactions.  And the devotional masters, many of whom have contributed to the Cult of the Cross, are not divorced from the theologians’ task.  Many of them have been theologians.  The great liturgists, pray-ers, preachers, and ascetics of the Patristic world were also its great theologians.*

However, the Theology of the Cross is the application of the human mind with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the salvific action of God the Son on the Cross at Golgotha.  Normally, it expressly does not take the actual, True Cross and make it the focus of the discourse.  The Cult of the Cross does, the focus always being a symbolic focus, always pointing to the God-Man upon the Cross.

Often the Cult of the Cross actually manifests itself as the Cult of the Crucifixion or the Cult of the Crucified.  Here Theology and Cult will more frequently intersect.

If you think I’m way off base in terms of what cult is, let me know.

*This fact should give us pause when we consider modern academic theology.

John Donne: Good Friday

Tom Wright declares, in The Prison Letters (fr. his series Paul for Everyone):

As you look at the incarnate son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is.  He is the God of self-giving love. (103)

In Holy Week at the Small Group we looked at some of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Easter Week we perused George Herbert.  Donne’s poetry is available via Luminarium, and the sonnets we read were numbers X, “Death Be Not Proud,” XI, “Spit in My Face, You Jews, and Pierce My Side,” XIII “What If This Present Were the World’s Last Night,” and XIV, “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God.”  Herbert’s were “Good Friday,” “Sepulchre,” “Easter,” and “Easter-Wings,” all available at Luminarium save “Good Friday” somehow.

Today let us consider John Donne’s, “Spit in My Face, You Jews.”  All of the above-mentioned poems are worth reading several times.  Indeed, we read them all aloud twice each.  Here is John Donne’s eleventh Holy Sonnet.  Read it to yourself a few times, especially aloud, even in company.

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire ;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Part of the appeal of this poem is its provocative first line.  I think it’s supposed to make you think that Donne is being racist.  Only he’s not.  I don’t know if he was in real life, but this poem is not racist.  Read it again if you thought it was.  That first line is calling the Jewish people of the first-century to spit in Donne’s face.  Why?  Because these people killed the sinless one, “who could do no iniquity.”  And Donne?  Oh, Donne’s a sinner.  Read his un-holy sonnets.  Donne is the one who deserve buffetting, scoffing, scourging, and crucifying, not Jesus.  He is calling on the Jews to turn their attentions to himself instead of to Christ.

This fact is central to the mystery of Good Friday, the glory of the Cross — we sinners who deserve death are spared, while the livegiver who has done no wrong dies on our behalf.  Jesus on the Cross is showing us the upside Kingdom of God’s mercy — not simply pardoning as an earthly king, but bearing our punishment.  And yet we surpass the impiety of the first-century Jews.  We, by our sins, crucify Jesus daily.  What impiety!  What sin!  Should we not feel sorrow and seek to amend our ways?

Finally, we see that God, YHWH, who is impassible, who cannot suffer, has “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” — in order to “be weak enough to suffer woe.”  Christ, who is himself perfect God, tasted all there is to taste of humanity, including suffering, including woe, including death.  All of these things are now taken up into God through the Incarnation and Crucifixion.  Our pain is known to the Almighty, and he shall not remain silent forever.

If you’ve been following my posts on the Cult of the Cross (here and here), I would argue that poetry such as this is part of the early seventeenth century’s Protestant “Cult” of the Cross — devotional poetry reflecting upon the Cross and upon Christ and how Christ might be made real to me, and I might change my ways.

The Cult of the Cross: The Bible & The Cross

In my previous post on the subject, we saw that a “cult” of the Cross was a natural development within Christian piety, and that such a cult properly focusses upon our Saviour who died for us upon the Cross.  The Cross itself is incidental; it is a symbol or icon of the salvific event of Christ’s atoning death.

Keeping that in mind, although cults of crosses exist that demonstrate abuses and venerations verging on the idolatrous, what the Bible has to tell us about the Cult of the Cross is not the same thing as what it tells us about idolatry; in some circumstances, we are (possibly) to follow the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians re food sacrificed to idols — if veneration of a cross causes someone to think they are sinning, don’t venerate and don’t persuade to venerate.*

Yet if all we can see when we look at crucifices, such as the Bernini Crucifix in the Art Gallery of Ontario, is the excess of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, or some of the oddities abroad in modern Roman Catholicism, then we’re missing the point of what men like Bernini were doing, and we possibly ignore the Biblical witness.

So here is the Biblical witness:

Matthew gives an entire chapter of 66 verses to the Passion of our Lord; depending how you count, the half-chapter before it as well.  Mark and Luke are similar.  By my previous reckonings, John gives one and a half to two chapters to the Passion of the Lord’s Anointed.  The Crucifixion — eternally linked with the Resurrection that followed — is the centrepiece of the Gospel, the most important Event in the History of the Cosmos.  The Apostles, the Evangelists, give it much attention.

Quickly the Cross comes to symbolise (at least linguistically if not more) that Event (my translations):

1 Cor. 1:17-18: For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the Gospel, not in wisdom of words (logos), so that the cross of Christ is not made void.  For the teaching (logos) of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Gal. 6:14: May it not be unto me that I should boast unless in the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.

Eph. 2:16: he [Christ] might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross

Phil. 3:18: For many walk about concerning whom I spoke to you often, and I now speak even weeping, the enemeis of the cross of Christ.

Col. 2:14: . . . and he has taken it [the indictment] out of the way, having fastened it to the cross.

According to Strong’s, the epistles have eleven references to the word cross.  The idea is simple: The word cross has become shorthand for Christ’s atoning death; it is, thus, a symbol of what Jesus has done for us, an image of that Event which has wrought for us our salvation.

If you find yourself boasting in the Cross today, know that you are not an idolater but, rather, in very good company.

*Could we educate as well, though?  To replace “meat sacrificed to idols” to “booze”, isn’t it better to gently bring our legalistic brother to a point where he can accept that drinking is not a sin than to leave him in his weakness and avoid “the drink” in his presence?  Also, a priest in a village in Cyprus is known to tell his parishioners to get rid of their icons if they are starting to worship them.

The Cult of the Cross 1

A while ago, I posted a blog about the origins of the sign of the Cross here.  The post was fairly innocuous — a few quotations from the Fathers about making the sign of the Cross and the power that the Cross has over demons with another from Martin Luther thrown in for good measure (if Protestants don’t trust the Fathers, they might trust Luther).  At the close, I remarked upon the lack of popularity the sign of the Cross has with Protestants.

The version imported to Facebook received the following comment:

It has likely lost favour with Protestants because the act of signing yourself with the cross has no biblical basis. Venerating wooden crosses and believing that the sign of the cross holds ‘magic power’ is dishonouring to Christ. It is by the shedding of Christ’s blood that we are saved, by his death and resurrection that the penalty for our sins is paid – it is not by the piece of wood that Christ was nailed to. The cross as an object holds no power and to worship it is idolatry. We should look to Jesus, the person, not to the object upon which he was killed.

When done properly, veneration of the Cross operates in a manner similar to all symbolic action, even more similar to the use of icons (but Protestants aren’t often fond of those, either).*  When I look upon a cross, or make the shape of one over my body, I am not thinking, “This t-shape will save me,” or “That piece of wood/bronze/silver/stone is worthy of my worship.”  Rather, the Cross becomes a window to a great spiritual truth.  It is a vehicle for the imagination and the reason and emotions to be drawn back through history to the great moment of Time when the timeless, deathless One entered Time and died.

A cross is a kind of recapitulation of the one, unrepeatable historical event of the Crucifixion of the King of Glory.  The death of Christ my God is made real to me as I contemplate the Cross.  The benefits of his passion are brought to me as I behold the crossed bits of wood hanging in my prayer area, the ornamented fragment of silver I wear around my neck, the shining brass at so many Anglican churches, the stained glass at St. Alban’s in Ottawa.

These benefits are not made real simply by the presence of a piece of wood, but through receiving the benefits of the historical Crucifixion through the contemplation of the object before me by faith in Christ our God.  Faith is the key ingredient, and that Faith lies in the One Who hung and died, the One Who loves me most.

It strikes me as a natural event that Christian worship would include veneration of the Cross, art of the Crucifixion, Crucifixes on necks and walls, bare crosses on necks and walls, films of the Passion, plays of the Passion, poetry about the Cross, and what ultimately could be called the “cult” of the Cross.

Given what I’ve said above, I do not believe that a cult (cultus) of the Cross is a bad thing.  Kissing crosses, parading crosses, meditating with crosses, kneeling before crosses, prayers recalling the Cross — these are not bad things.  They are a reminder not of a piece of wood that may or may not have been found by St. Helena in the fourth century but of the salvation of the world wrought upon one such Cross by our Saviour and Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

“All this is well and good,” you may say, thoroughly unconvinced, no doubt.  “What about the Bible?”  We’ll get to that next time.

*Amusing slip of the tongue from a friend referring to the statue of St. Alban the Martyr of which I am fond, “So, you really like the idols, don’t you?”