When I began to write this, it was the day I awoke to a day when the sun didn’t rise. As many of you may have seen on newscasts, the fog layer held in the smoke from the fires, fires from as far away as Oregon, as close as 20 miles. And the sky was a dark red, the kind of red of a total solar eclipse. And it stayed that way all day. And it was terrifying. And I thought of the passage in Mark, “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole world” (Mk 15:33) and, “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was rent in two, from top to bottom” (Mk 15:37-38). Such was the day with no day, then and now. I had been wrestling with the problem of adoration of the Cross. Being that good mixture of Protestant and Anglo-Catholic, creating an idol out of an object made me uneasy. And there had been too many Good Friday services where we filed up to the large wooden cross, knelt, kissed, adored, and threw rose petals. When does an ikon become an idol?
How often we hear that we are a Resurrection People. That’s nice. We like to be nice. And we remember, with a shudder, those days when it was all about suffering, the more the better. So why are we celebrating the Holy Cross today? A piece or two of wood. A means of execution. A stumbling block for those who mock us. But if there was no Cross, there would have been no Reconciliation. So is the Cross simply a superstitious idol, a way of encouraging acts of piety and bursts of emotion? Or is it something deeper?
The sign of the Cross was not used by the first Christians. If they needed to identify themselves, they preferred the Chi Rho as a monogram for Christos (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ), or a ship with a cross beam on the main mast, or an anchor, which also has a cross element. But not the Cross of Golgotha. Although Scripture is very clear about the importance of Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the Cross, it was Jesus that was the focus, the narrative of his death and burial, his reappearance from the dead. Tertullian wrote that Christians made the sign of the cross (circa 211 CE), and Justin Martyr said the sign of the cross was used (circa 150 CE). But it was the vision of Constantine, his military victory and conversion to Christianity, that inspired his mother, Helena, to do a little archeology to find what was believed to be the true Cross. The Emperor had a shrine built to hold the relic. It was dedicated on September 14, 335.
However, from the earliest Church Fathers to contemporary theologians, the Cross is pointing to Christ, not itself. One exception is the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, in which the Cross told its own story, the very wood which had wanted to bow down, but had to do its painful duty and stand strong. The Cross carrying its own cross. But still, the Cross is not like the elements of the Eucharist. In the bread and wine the faithful believe, as I do, that the real presence of Christ is there. And yes, cannibals that we are, we ingest the Lord, incorporate the very essence of God into our incarnate and sinful bodies. It is personal. Relational. And very real.
So what is the Cross to us? A reminder of our part in the Crucifixion, our sins, our humanity driving in the nails, feeling the suffocation (think COVID) of the dying Man God’s willing sacrifice? Veneration of an object does smack of idol worship. One thing I believe, it is not is an object on which to throw roses and tears, at least not before getting very cold and clear about what it is and was to Jesus’ followers around 30-33 CE. It was a vicious and slow way to execute a person inconvenient to the powerful. We can’t look at the Cross all dewy eyed any more than a surgeon can avoid the reality of the blood and guts of life-giving surgery. And, of course, when the horror of it hits us, and we open to the larger narrative, and see ourselves at the foot of the Cross banging in the nails through our human frailty and human cruelty, then and only then can contrition lead us to his forgiveness, the Reconciliation offered in the bloody sacrifice. We hurt God, and God forgave us, and rewarded us with eternity as adopted children. So it isn’t the Cross, so much as the reflection on the Cross and whom it lifted up. It is not an idol made by human hands.
Some images have deep roots in human imagination, and we move to the two Hebrew Scriptural readings, Numbers.21:4-9 and Genesis 3:1-15. Moses is at it with his magical staff again. The staff Aaron threw before Pharaoh which turned into a snake and back to a staff. That is a trick still used by stage magicians to this day, and known in Moses’ day. So even conceding that his act was a miracle empowered by God, it did not have the cachet expected, even if God’s snake staff ate the Egyptian snake staffs. But poisonous snakes are a real threat, especially when there is a population explosion. Moses makes a magical amulet out of bronze and mounts it on a staff. Looking at it cures a deadly snakebite. Even if this act is accompanied by prayer and praise, how different is it from the Golden Calf? It is always a short hop between the Living God and something we can see and touch, even if it has symbolic meaning greater than itself.
For example, going to the passage in Genesis, the Tree and the Snake were borrowed from other Middle Eastern people who saw Paradise inhabited by a good goddess, who nourished, and a snake, both a symbol of fecundity and danger. With this Genesis creation story, one of two, reimagined, it wasn’t about the divine snake’s ambiguity as healer and killer, but it refocuses on God’s ownership of knowledge vs. human curiosity and independence. That led to the First Sin. And that is the Sin that lifting up the Son of God was meant to heal. And so, lifting up a bronze snake, the dangerous snake of the Garden, was an amulet that healed the poison of snakebite. And lifting up the Cross, with the willing sacrifice taking to himself the poison of all our sinful snakebites, was a manifestation of that healing for all times to come. The symbols tie together. And mystical wisdom is found in the not too logical swirling of the Spirit within, as often as not accessed by symbols crashing into one another.
We sign ourselves with a cross, receive a blessing with a cross, are anointed with a cross. A physical sign of being Christ’s own forever. And we wear the cross. But most wear an unadorned cross, not a crucifix with the corpus of Jesus. Perhaps we are saying that we are the broken body of Christ. We are on that cross every time we sign or wear the cross. We pick up our cross each time, and become the sons and daughters of our Abba, and one with Christ Jesus. The Holy Cross is within us. And so we venerate the Cross, as each act of adoration and service in Jesus’ name is our unification with Jesus’ death. And his Resurrection. And ours.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.