At the center of Christian vision and imagery stands a great and enigmatic sign, the sign of the Cross. Like the brass serpent held aloft on a pole by Moses in the desert, the Cross has drawn and fixed the gazes of men ever since it was raised. It is there at the center of Christian vision because it is there at the center of the divine drama celebrated in that vision—the drama unfolded on the stage of our history in the sequence of Annunciation, Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. And, like all these mighty mysteries in this sequence, the Cross defies all our efforts to grasp its full significance, and all our attempts to respond adequately. Shall we approach in sackcloth or in festal garments? Shall we sing songs of penitence or of triumph? Shall we bring ashes or garlands?

The difficulty we mortal men have in the presence of the events that make up the Gospel is that, while the events themselves are straightforward enough for any peasant to understand (the angels appeared to shepherds), the significance of those events exhausts the efforts of the most sublime intellects to grasp them. The plain gospel story is told, century after century, to peasants, children, and philosophers, and calls forth adoration and faith from all alike. The stable, the upper room, the garden, the cross, the tomb, and so forth: these are points in a tale that is plain enough for all of us. But they are also points on the frontier between the seen and the unseen, the historic and the eternal, the contingent and the unconditioned, and hence open out onto vistas where the divine immensities loom in all their terror and splendor.

For this reason, the Cross, which is a clear enough object, attracts the unceasing efforts of human intellect, imagination, and affection to respond in some manner fitting its significance. It is carried in procession with great pomp in Rome, and hangs on a string around the neck of an Irish farmer. It glimmers from a plaque next to a child’s crib, and shines from the pages of Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth. It is hailed in sorrowful chants (“O vos omnes … videte si est dolor sicut dolor mei”) and in hymns of contrition (“When I survey the wondrous Cross”) and of triumph (“Onward, Christian soldiers”). There are gold crosses, plastic crosses, wooden crosses, jeweled crosses, and stone crosses. There are huge crosses towering in the Alps and the Andes, and tiny crosses on dashboards and shelves. There are crosses on spires and crosses on gravestones. There are Celtic crosses, Crusaders’ crosses, crosses of St. Anne, and Coptic crosses. There is the bare cross, the crucifix, and the Christus Rex (Christ crowned and in royal robes on the Cross). And of course there is no counting the frescoes, mosaics, icons, and oil paintings that have for their subject the crucifixion scene.

Article continues below

What can we say of the Cross—this mystery so celebrated, extolled, lauded, adored, and followed for two thousand years? Nothing new, certainly.

For Protestant imagination, the focus has always been not so much on the image of the Cross as on the work of the Cross: the work of atonement wrought by Christ there for us, from which proceed our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins; and the work of the Cross in the heart of the Christian who embraces it, dealing death to the Adam in us with all of his sin, and opening the way to new life. Hence, in this imagination, the Cross is thought about, and spoken about, and preached and written about, but not much depicted. The idea here is that if you externalize and visualize your representations of the Cross, you will get to looking at the thing you have made and miss the significance behind it. It is a caution that has been alive in the Church from the beginning, and one that will need to be kept alive until we pass from faith to sight in the final triumph.

But whether Christians’ meditations on the Cross have been accompanied by any sort of visual representation or not, all Christians have known that this Cross is right at the center for them. The story that they call Good News anticipates and moves straight toward the Cross from the outset; nay, there is shed blood and the promise of bruising some thousands of years before that story itself unfolds. And there is no victorious denouement to the gospel story (what Professor Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe”—the good outcome) in Resurrection and Ascension without the Cross first. There is no question of eternal life for us without our going down into crucifixion and burial with Christ, like seeds of wheat planted in the ground before the crop and harvest. There is no putting away of sin by any method other than crucifixion. There is no doing away with the debt piled against us unless it is nailed to the Cross.

Christians see themselves, then, as a people under the sign of the Cross. It is the sign of their salvation; it is their ensign, their banner, their cover, their plea, and their glory. It is an interesting datum in the history of the Church that there has never been defined for Christian orthodoxy one universally satisfactory doctrine as to what happened at the Cross. All creeds and councils agree that at the Cross Christ effected our salvation, and that our debt was, somehow, paid there (paid to whom? God? the Devil?), and that we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life on the basis of that event. But the fullness of the transaction remains a mystery. The words Offering, Sacrifice, Substitution, Atonement, Example, and Victory all crowd around the Cross, but no one can get all the pieces fitted together, any more than they can fit together the pieces in the other events of the gospel story. We affirm these events and the dogmas that define them; we confess them, we believe them, we bow to them, we preach them, and we sing of them. But we cannot explain them.

Article continues below

This, surely, is at least part of the glory of Christian faith: it speeds like a light between two poles, the one pole being the plain events in the gospel story, the other being the great mysteries evinced in the events. For Christians, the very act of contemplating the events and the mysteries is nourishing and gladdening. For two thousand years now, peasants and sages have focused on the few simple events of the Gospel in their meditations; but no one has come near to exhausting it.

The Cross, as much as any other item in the Gospel story, has been a fountainhead of Christian contemplation. It is sometimes helpful for us in our meditations to reach away from our own time, or our own tradition, in order to get a fresh glimpse of familiar things. We may do this with some profit in connection with the Cross.

For example, there is an Anglo-Saxon poem that celebrates the Cross in terms we might not have thought of. It is called “The Dream of the Rood,” and the earliest version of the poem is carved in runes on the eighteen-foot stone cross in the chancel of the church in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, in Scotland. This version dates probably from the seventh century A.D. The poetry of that era tends to have battle and heroic deeds for its subject matter, so it is not strange to find that this poem speaks of the Cross in heroic terms. The poet tells us that he dreamed a dream:

Me-seemed I saw

A wondrous Tree towering in air,

Most shining of crosses compassed with light

I gazed on the Rood arrayed in glory,

Shining in beauty and gilded with gold

The cross of the Saviour beset with gems.Charles W. Kennedy, trans., An Anthology of Old English Poetry. New York, 1960. p. 144ff. All quotations from “The Dream of the Rood” are from this translation.

Article continues below

[“The Dream of the Rood,” An Anthology of Old English Poetry, Charles Kennedy, trans., Oxford, 1960].

But through this splendor there “outgleamed a token/Of the ancient evil of sinful men”: the Cross is wet and stained with blood. As the dreamer dreams on, the Cross speaks to him, and tells him of its own experience of having borne the young Warrior in His battle with evil. This is the Cross itself speaking:

Then I saw the King of all mankind

In brave mood hasting to mount upon me.…

Then the young Warrior, God, the All-Wielder,

Put off His raiment, steadfast and strong;

With lordly mood in the sight of many

He mounted the Cross to redeem mankind.

This notion of Christ as the young Warrior entering the battle in our behalf is one that occurs again and again in Old and Middle English literature. The best-known instance of it is in the fourteenth-century poem called The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, written, most scholars think, by one William Langland. It is an immense work in every way. In the course of the poem there is a description of Christ’s Passion, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection. Here, in a modern prose translation, is how the poet visualizes Jesus coming to Jerusalem and the Cross:

A man came riding along barefoot on an ass, unarmed and without spurs. He looked like the Good Samaritan—or was it Piers the Ploughman? He was young and lusty, like a squire coming to be dubbed knight and receive his golden spurs and cut-away shoes. Then Faith, who was standing at a window, cried out, “See! The Son of David!”—like a herald proclaiming a knight who comes to the tournament.… So I asked Faith the meaning of all this stir—“Who was going to joust in Jerusalem?” “Jesus,” he said, “to win back Piers’ fruit, which the Devil has claimed.” “Is Piers in this city?” I asked. He looked at me keenly and answered, “Jesus, out of chivalry, will joust in Piers’ coat-of’ arms, and wear His Helmet and mail, Human Nature; He will ride in Piers’ doublet, that no one here may know Him as Almighty God. For whatever blows He receives, they cannot wound Him in His divine nature [Piers the PloughmanJ. F. Goodridge, trans., Piers the Ploughman. Baltimore, 1964. pp. 256, 257., trans. by J. F Goodridge, 1964, Penguin, p. 256].

This is an image of Christ’s work on the Cross that is admittedly difficult to suit to the imagination of modern people whose picture of battle is conditioned by napalm and thermonuclear considerations. But the image itself has protohistoric warrant in the promise in Eden of the One who would bruise the head of the serpent, and himself be wounded (a picture of close-quarters combat seems inevitable). Here, perhaps, is a case in point of our need to keep alive ancient imagery, no matter what changes the passing of centuries makes in our culture and our outlook. To take a corollary example, Christians would insist that, no matter how “relevant” or “irrelevant” it may appear to modern imagination, the gospel story must include a cross, even though crucifixion is a total irrelevancy now, since we take our socially unadjusted people and put them on couches, not crosses, and ask them to tell us about their mothers. But no Christian would feel comfortable with the effort to update Christian imagery by substituting small silver couches on necklaces for the traditional silver cross.

Article continues below

The point is, the ancient story with its exact imagery must continue to be told. If you change the imagery, you change the substance. The same would be true of the Eucharistic feast—we can’t substitute spinach and Coke for bread and wine; or again, of the image of Christ as Shepherd—the substitute picture of Him as friendly corner cop, for ghetto children, say, who know nothing of sheep and fields: this will not quite serve. And in our case here of Christ as the young champion entering the lists for us: modern battle imagery of espionage, frogmen, and supersonic pilots may incline us to leave any combat-imagery of the Cross to one side, since it does not fit our pictures of modern warfare. But the argument here is that, on the contrary, we must keep alive not only the old story, but old forms of the story, that help us to visualize what it was all about. Christ as knight seems consonant with the significance of the story: Christ as frogman does not.

Again, the jewels and gold that deck the Cross in “The Dream of the Rood” signify, not fatuous opulence or idolatry, but rather the same thing signified by the woman’s costly box of spikenard: the effort of human imagination to give visible, tangible shape to its awareness of immense worth. When it comes to this sort of thing, we cannot, like Judas, raise “practical” questions such as how much it costs, or whether it is realistic or not. Of course it is not realistic, and no one for a moment supposes that the Cross was anything other than a ghastly, rough-hewn, splintery affair clumsily knocked together. But just as we hail the Cross in high song and anthem (there was no singing on Golgotha that Friday), so we may deck it with gold, both acts testifying to the infinitely precious nature of that which the Cross, all unknown to Caiaphas or Pilate, signifies.

Article continues below

In the poem, the Cross continues to speak:

Now you may learn, O man beloved,

The bitter sorrows that I have borne,

The work of caitiffs.…

On me a while God’s Son once suffered;

Now I tower under heaven in glory auired

With healing for all that hold me in awe.…

Lo! The Lord of glory

The Warden of Heaven, above all wood

Has glorified me as Almighty God

Has honored His Mother, even Mary herself,

Over all womankind in the eyes of men.

Here we come upon another notion rich in devotional significance for Christians: the idea that, just as God took the plain maiden Mary and, by making her a participant with him in the mystery of the Incarnation, raised her to a unique place so that she was highly favored among women, to be called blessed by all generations, so mutatis mutandis, the humble stuff, wood, by “participating” in the mystery of the Atonement, has been raised to a unique glory. It is as though we are imagining a tremendous procession in heaven, say, after the final consummation of all things, when every creature—men, women, beasts, stars, angels, seas, mountains, the lot—comes past the witness stands thronged with the redeemed, and the heralds cry out as each one passes, “Here is the Maid Mary! Hail her as the one chosen to bear the Incarnate Word!” and then “Here comes Water! Hail it as the chosen sign of new birth!” and “Here is Wood! Chosen to bear the body of the Son of God in his travail! Hail! Hail all wood, highly favored!”

Fanciful? Of course. But how do we propose to think of these things? We have all sung the Christmas carol about the friendly beasts: perhaps there is a truth in that way of imagining things that escapes all of our sober calculating.

And, lest we think that this sort of thing may detract from the glory and adoration due to God alone, we must remember that such things as crowns, and “praise and honor and glory,” are promised to the faithful. What does that mean? Whatever it means, it will all be offered up to God in one tremendous offering, with the whole multitude “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”

Almost a thousand years after “The Dream of the Rood” was written, a poet much closer to us in sensibility as well as in time, spoke similarly of the Cross. The dear and noble George Herbert, trying to find some mode of song adequate to answer to the Grace he had experienced, wrote this:

Article continues below

Awaks, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert. Oxford, 1972. p. 41.

Here the poet pursues the extraordinary idea of a synonymity between the Cross and a musical instrument: both of them are made of wood, both “resound His name,” and both have sinews stretched across them. This is illogical in the extreme, of course, and stands at a polar opposite from expository prose: but it may participate in the same sort of thing we find in the Psalms, where the only language appropriate to the high and bright realities of Sion is poetry, with all of its high and bright absurdities. Poetry, psalmody, hymnody—we reach for these modes when our meditations have exhausted expository prose.

There is in the Church an ancient ceremony for Good Friday that goes back to fourth-century Syrian usage, in which the faithful are hailed with “Ecce lignum Crucis in quo salus mundi pependit” (Behold the wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world). Here the idea is not that Christians worship wood: rather, it is that our whole consciousness (touch and sight and smell as well as hearing and thinking) is called into the act of worship, and that hence our physical faculties may be appropriately pressed into service (we are not angels). This, of course, is why Christians often bow their heads or kneel when they pray: these muscular movements of neck and knee joints might seem to be wholly unrelated to the business of adoring the Deity, but somehow, being the flesh-and-blood creatures we are, we find that we are helped thereby. Hence also such things as hymn tunes, or incense: our ears and noses are not written off as unworthy or irrelevant.

In this Good Friday ceremony, the hymn “Crux fidelis” is sung. It is a peculiar hymn for sensible and logical people to sing, but again, as with the language of the psalms, it bespeaks paradoxes and high reaches of vision that elude common sense and logic. Here are the words, from The Saint Andrew Sunday Missal (Bruges, 1962):

Faithful Cross, above all other,

One and only noble tree,

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thy peer may be.

Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,

Sweetest weight is hung on thee.Dom Gaspar Lefebure, O.S.B., ed., The Saint Andrew Sunday Missal. Bruges, 1962. p. 238.

Article continues below

A well-intentioned humanitarian bystander might well huff and puff over the savagery of these sentiments: “Sweetest wood! Sweetest iron! You Christians are barbarian—celebrating the instruments of torture that wracked and pierced your own prophet!” And the faithful can only answer that the Christian mysteries are full of rich and staggering paradoxes, and that in the case of the Cross, the eye of faith sees the worst thing that ever happened (deicide) to be the best thing that ever happened (salvation), and the most appalling instrument of torture to be the very thing to which we cling for our refuge and joy. A similar paradox is uttered in the ancient formula “O felix culpa Adae” (O happy fault of Adam), the idea being, not that we laud sin, but that that sin became the occasion for the greatest thing of all (Grace) to manifest itself.

The same idea is at work in one of the Orthodox liturgies for the Elevation of the Precious Cross of the Lord. At the vigil, these chants are sung:

The Cross, being set up, doth command every created being to sing the most pure Passion of him who was lifted up thereon. For having upon the same slain him who had slain us, he endowed with life those who were slain, and adorned them and vouchsafed that they might dwell in heaven.… O come, all ye nations, let us adore the blessed Tree, through which the righteousness eternal hath come to pass: for he who beguiled our forefather Adam with the tree is himself beguiled by the Cross, and he who, like a tyrant, did lord it over that which the King had fashioned, falleth, being overthrown by a downfall strange. The poison of the serpent is washed away by the blood of God, and the curse of just condemnation is abolished, in that the Righteous One hath been condemned by unrighteous judgment: for it was meet that the tree should be healed by the Tree, and that by the passion of the Passionless One upon the Tree, the passions of the condemned one should be destroyed.I. F. Hapgood, ed., Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church. Brooklyn, 1965. p. 167. [Service, Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, Brooklyn, 1965, p. 167].

Perhaps as we approach Holy Week this year, our efforts to contemplate the mysteries of our Redemption in the Passion and Crucifixion of the Lord may be helped by some of these ancient forms that Christian meditation on the Cross have taken.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.