*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 14th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A very Happy Holy Cross Day to those who recognize it: whether you be a Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran. Or, if you’re some kind of rebel Baptist that secretly makes the sign of the cross when no one is looking.
We recently discussed Helena, the mother of Constantine on her feast day, and on that day we told the story of her finding the true cross. We told the story about the tree of life from the Garden of Eden that supposedly made its way throughout the history of the Jewish people until it was discarded and used by a Roman carpenter who crafted the cross on which our Lord was crucified.
This day technically recognizes her finding the cross (a fun, pious, and fabricated story!) and the restoration of the True Cross in the late 600s after being recovered from the Persians.
This day, celebrated across the church, is not primarily about the crucifixion (that’s Good Friday) but about the cross itself. And of course, what is more ubiquitous in the church than the cross? But the development of the feast day will take a backseat today to the development of the use of the cross in Christian worship. Let’s break this down.
First question: which cross? Not Cross or Crucifix. We’ll get to that in a second. But the Latin cross (the one you most likely know) or perhaps the orthodox Cross that has the tiny crooked bar at the bottom? Or the Maltese cross which hardly looks like a cross (It’s like 4 fancy arrows pointed inwards to the same point? Or the Crusader's Cross which has far too many crosses and looks busy. Or the Florian Cross? You know this one? If you’ve seen the symbol for firefighters, and the Luther Rose you have seen it. It is most likely that the actual cross of Jesus looked like the Orthodox Cross or the Russian Orthodox Cross. The smallest cross on top is supposed to be where the placard was hung and the bottom, crooked cross was for the feet to rest. Also, the crooked part is supposed to be facing up towards the repentant thief, and down towards the unrepentant thief.
Next Question: when did the Christian Church start using the cross in worship and architecture? Much later than you might think. In the early church, while the theological emphasis is on the cross, there is little to no art depicting either the cross or the crucifixion. The Christogram: Chi Rho (looks like a backward P with an X through it) was popular on account of Constantine’s claim to have seen a vision of it before the battle. The backward P and X are the first letters in the word Christ.
But why not the cross?
A couple of ideas (there is no real scholarly consensus):
1. The connection between words and images wasn’t as strong as it is now. Many things had no image attached and your mind did the image-making from the words you heard.
2. But even when the church begins to use imagery, it stays away from cross/crucifixion imagery. Why? Because no matter your faith in the wonder of the death of Christ, it was perhaps still too fresh. We might have lovely hymns today that depict Christ’s gruesome death, but we also have distance.
3. The use of the cross, and especially crucifix, was not popular until the Middle Ages, and the Cistercians (esp.) among other Orders developing crucifix-centric piety.
4. And the 60,000 dollar question: which is more historical, the Crucifix or the empty Cross? Answer: the empty cross. When the crucifix did develop there were questions as to how Jesus should look on the cross. In early crucifixes, he was always alive. In others, he might look uncomfortable, but not suffering. It’s only in the Western Middle Ages and the black death, war, etc.. that we start to see the depiction of the Suffering Savior.
5. Should we use an empty Cross or Crucifix? Well, in a vacuum there are no “should’s” with this one. Except everything can be used as a tool to beat others over the head and everything has a context so we probably want to make that decision in our own faith communities. But here’s something to think about from the Gospels: when Jesus talks about going to his glory, where is that? It is Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus is glorified at his death. For this reason, we see bejeweled and golden crosses and crucifixes- highlighting the central, grand, and cosmic irony at Golgotha.
A happy Holy Cross day to you, this the 14th of September.
The last word for today is from 1 Corinthians. Only 1 verse, so be ready:
18The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who used to recognize today as Romanian Engineers Day (which it is) but stopped when he learned it was about folks who used math and built stuff, not train guys with stripey hats. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.