From the Anglo Saxon Poem, Dream of the Rood.
"On me the Child of God
suffered awhile. Therefore I triumphant
now tower under the heavens, able to heal
any one of them, those who stand in terror of me.
Long ago I was made into the hardest of torments,
most hateful to men, until I made roomy
the righteous way of life for them,
for those bearing speech. Listen-
the Lord of Glory honoured me then
over all forested trees, the Warden of Heaven's Realm!"
The words of that ancient poem resonates with a dream of the Cross of Christ proclaiming what happened to it, pointing out that from being an instrument of torment it has become the sign and symbol of victory and glory. Not everybody likes the poem, but for me at least it claims a deep connection, one we all must share, of discovering for myself in a deep and personal way, just what it was that the Christ did in offering his life for the life of the world.
The Cross has been and is still a stumbling block, rooted in human cruelty and pain, used even now as a method of execution. The horrors of what these planks of wood can do still cause us to shudder, yet hidden in the ignominy and suffering of those caught upon the wood are the glimpses of the starlight that becomes the Morning Star that never sets, Christ our true light.
The Benedictine Nun's of Stanbrook's hymn for the Office of this feast: 'O Cross of Christ', puts it so gently:
" O Cross of Christ, immortal tree
On which our Saviour died,
The world is sheltered by your arms
That bore the Crucified.
From bitter death and barren wood
the tree of life is made;
Its branches bear unfailing fruit
And leaves that never fade.
O faithful Cross, you stand unmoved
While ages run their course;
Foundation of the universe,
Creation's minding force."
Whatever we think of the world's problems, whatever we may think of the failings and sins of our own Church, on this feast we must lift up any tear stained faces and open our anguished hearts to the Cross that is transformed from an object of pain to become OUR symbol, our emblem of glory and hope.
The Liturgist Pius Parsch wrote movingly about the feast, words which seem so touching for us in this time of the Church's painful journey into truth with the revelations of abuse and mismanagement. It seems apt as we face the darkness of sin that he places the feasts context in the rhythm of the darkening seasons of our Northern Hemisphere: "With special reason [the Church] celebrates [this] feast now at the beginning of autumn; the Cross is "raised" against the rising darkness, a symbol of the might of hell, The Church wishes to "raise again the sign of the Son of Man" which will appear at His Second Coming (awaiting the parousia is thematic to the Church's Harvest Time)." (Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace: Vol. 5, P191)
I chose as the illustration for this reflection not the jewelled cross of Byzantium or the wonderfully carved crucifixes of later times, but instead a crude bizarre scraffito from the very early centuries of the Church, possibly around the year 200CE which poked fun at a Christian named Alexamenos and mocked Jesus on drawing him as a man on a cross with a donkeys head, the inscription in Greek translates as "Alexamenos worships [his] god"!
There is something immensely profound in that graffiti, it reminds me at least that faith is not about feel-good factors, nor can it be an escape from life and death. It may be a bit blasphemous, but the donkey's head itself takes me into the cruel world we inflict not only on humans but yes, the donkey as a symbol of all creatures. Yet as Isaiah prophesied, the first to recognise the creator come on earth are not men and women.
"The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand".(Is 3:1)
That little image takes up the theme of the cross as transformation and hope, it is the key that turned the lock in the gates of Hell so the triumphant Christ could trample down the doors of death and sin for ever. May we rejoice in this great symbol of hope as we make the sign of the cross on ourselves and others and raise again the sign of the son of God.
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