Charles Williams on the Scandal of the Cross

Modified re-post from a few years ago elsewhere.

Aelfwine's Office of the Holy Cross now upHere’s a little something from my breakfast reading, a reminder from Charles Williams (of Inklings fame, along with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) of how comfortable we get with what we believe, a reminder that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.

The passage is from The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is basically a delightful romp through church history dancing in the beauty and the glory of it all, full of fresh thoughts, well-crafted sentences, and startling observations. He writes:

When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase — “My Eros is crucified.” (75-76)

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Irenaeus and the Cross

Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)
Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)

One of the questions that arose in Cyprus was the place the Cross holds in the theology of St Irenaeus. The concern, and it is a not uncommon concern, is that Irenaeus has a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and our salvation as a result of the Word having become flesh and having pitched his tent among us. This is a concern that Aulén addresses in Christuss Victor (itself a short book with an incisive chapter on Irenaeus), but I don’t have those notes with me in Firenze.

However, I have been trying to catch up with Read the Fathers. So here’s some of what’s been read tonight:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God — all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Against the Heresies 5.1.1)

For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such
as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself
grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills1812). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (5.2.2*)

And in every Epistle the apostle plainly testifies, that through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we havebeen saved. (5.14.3; more anti-docetic than pro-crucifixion, but there it is)

Jeremiah also says to the same purport: “The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe.” This word, then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself (5.17.4)

For indeed the creation could not have sustained Him [on the cross], if He had sent forth [simply by commission] what was the fruit of ignorance and defect. Now we have repeatedly shown that the incarnate Word of God was suspended upon a tree, and even the very heretics do acknowledge that He was crucified. (5.18.1)

And, from earlier readings in Against the Heresies:

Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.(2.22.4)

The main purpose of Against the Heresies is the refutation of the ‘Gnostic’ and other heterodox groups whom Irenaeus felt were a threat to the spiritual health of the Church. Therefore, he does not spend a lot of time on the Cross (although there is more about it than this; again, these are from the notes I have with me at present). Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that the Cross and death and saving blood of Jesus are an important part of Irenaeus’ theology.

As we enter Lent, let us ensure that the Cross is an important part of our own theology and, thus, of our lives.

*Here we see already in the second century the intimate link between Christology and the Eucharist, a link that was tied up in the fifth-century debates surrounding Nestorius, Cyril, and Leo.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

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.