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: 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?”