Monday, 13 April 2009

The empty cross

Some years ago I was attending a Church of Ireland service in a country town on Good Friday. The service was long and, for me, without any particular focus. Yes, there was a rather mechanistic reading of the Passion, but the rest of it was just Morning Prayer. The congregation was tiny, my own presence accounted for a double figure percentage. And the theme of the sermon (curiously in my view, given the day that was in it) was ‘the empty cross’. The clergyman was of the view that the use of the crucifix was unscriptural, in that ‘the point of Good Friday was the empty cross at Easter’ (I think I have remembered his phrase precisely).

I remembered all that this year when, on the radio, I heard another Irish Anglican clergyman make a similar point about the crucifix, but he also added a more general comment about the cross: he didn’t like it at all. Not terribly original of course: a number of commentators have argued that the Cross as a symbol may be turning off potential new members of the church, that it may be a rather garish and cruel instrument and may, as some have suggested, ‘carry too much baggage’. This kind of approach was lampooned back in the 1980s by the satirical puppet show on Channel 4 television, Spitting Image; they had the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, deciding to drop the Cross as the Christian symbol in favour of the Tambourine.

For me, there is something important about the edginess of the Cross, with the Corpus of Our Lord. Yes, it is dramatic and in-your-face, but maybe that is a welcome antidote to the growing blandness of religion, and in particular of religiosity. Yes, it has ‘baggage’, but then again that’s what Christianity has. The Cross is not supposed to convey an empty message, but a message of hope that has meaning because of what it is set against. It is not a message for a vanilla world.

So even in this Easter season our Cross is not empty. What happened has not been reversed, it has been brought to its full conclusion.

Posted by Ferdinand von Prondzynski on Monday, 13 April 2009 at 12:35pm BST | TrackBack
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"For me, there is something important about the edginess of the Cross, with the Corpus of Our Lord. Yes, it is dramatic and in-your-face, but maybe that is a welcome antidote to the growing blandness of religion, and in particular of religiosity. Yes, it has ‘baggage’, but then again that’s what Christianity has. The Cross is not supposed to convey an empty message, but a message of hope that has meaning because of what it is set against. It is not a message for a vanilla world."

Exactly so, Ferdinand -- excellently said. 1 Corinthians 1. To quote you again:

"A number of commentators have argued that the Cross as a symbol may be turning off potential new members of the church, that it may be a rather garish and cruel instrument and may, as some have suggested, ‘carry too much baggage’." I'm sure that was why gnosticism was so popular in the second century. Do we want "new members of the church" or "converts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ"? Yes, the cross carries a lot of baggage -- and it's our baggage. Conversion means, in part, "getting over it."

Posted by: William Moorhead on Monday, 13 April 2009 at 9:42pm BST

Thank you, Ferdinand, for your reflection on the need for the Cross at the heart of our religion. Also, if the Cross had not borne the figure of the Christ, it might not have had the tremendous significance it bears for many of us.

This is where the ikon of the 'Christus Rex' can give us some insight into what the story of the Cross needs for its completion - that journey from death to life, which Jesus has gained for all of us who look to him for salvation.
Christus Vincit!
Christ is Risen, Alleluia. He is Risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 1:48am BST

Notwithstanding this article and comments on certain approaches to the cross in Christianity, it does not follow that actual physical crosses (with or without a corpus)are needed or edifying for all people's spiritualities. And this includes the gesture of 'the sign of the Cross'.

It IS an equivalent of the noose or guillotine.

Also some forms of devotion which work in private may work differently in public settings of various kinds, not everyone wishes to be confronted by such imagery. Or for our children to have to.

There is an open question yet to be answered about the sadistic and masochistic aspects of Christian / Church thinking and practice(s) throughout history.

The Jews and Muslims have not found it a source of comfort or peace always -and too often to the contrary.

Believers can be quite thoughtless or selfish in insisting upon having some of these outward signs.
With detriment to witness and mission.

Love can be sadly absent ...

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Thursday, 16 April 2009 at 10:09pm BST

"Believers can be quite thoughtless or selfish in insisting upon having some of these outward signs.
With detriment to witness and mission. Rev.L.R. -

I find your comment here a little sad - and not a little cynical; when symbols, such as the signing of one's self with the Cross, have been a part of orthodox Christianity for many centuries of the Churches of both East and West. To sign one's self with the Cross at the holy water stoup on entering or leaving the church, for instance, can be a reminder of one's incorporation into the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.

Symbolism has been at the heart of Christian worship from the beginning - before the age of the commonly-available written word - and to denigrate it's use for those who find it helpful is rather ungenerous to say the least.

You say, rightly, that sometimes the sign of the Cross can be made without any forethought or real understanding of the background faith meaning. However, would you deny the use of the Cross in Baptism, or at the Eucharist - especially when it can give such comfort to those who really do understand its underlying significance?

One of the problems with protestantism is that it can denude the practice of religion of that which is familiar, and affords a life-enhancing contact with the numinous. The common catholic heritage of the Church rejoices in symbolism. Without it, our worship may be so much the poorer.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 17 April 2009 at 3:30am BST

"With detriment to witness and mission."

I suppose that it all depends on what/who we're bearing witness to and undergoing mission for. I cannot see that the Cross - plain, with corpus, one-barred, two-barred, three-barred, painted icon style, traced on our bodies right to left or left to right, or even neon-tubed - deters from a witness to the One who was crucified on it.

Posted by: BillyD on Friday, 17 April 2009 at 4:03pm BST

Fr Ron

Beleive me I am not being cynical, but nor must I, or any of us be naive.

Yes, but our treasured symbols especially the Cross can be a real stumbling block or bring fear to Jews, Muslims,and those who suffered under the Inquistion and others. I was shocked and sorry when this gradually dawned upon me-both for what we had done to others down the centuries and for my own loss of a loved symbol that could never be the same again for me. - Innocence lost.

We may sometimes be called upon to forgo such things for the sake of others, - especially in the public arena beyond the walls of dominical assemblies themselves. And even there, I would (no longer)use sign of cross among Christians for whom it was not a source of blessing or comfort.

In the C of E the sign of the cross is only required/ legislated for at Baptism and even then is barely visible to anyone else, --unless in the know and on the look-out for it !

BillyD please read what I wrote.It is an offence to many. It makes others tremble. The Jews of europe dreaded Easter from the middle ages on, because of the accompanying pogroms. This is appallling.

the first Christian symbol was thesign of the Fish (no the cross. Don't be cross tis true)

Love has been sadly lacking and imagination and empathy. Never too late to start again -thats Easter too, innit ?

Posted by: Rev L R on Saturday, 18 April 2009 at 10:00pm BST

"BillyD please read what I wrote. It is an offence to many."

Don't look now, but if you do a little reading yourself - say, of the New Testament - you'll see that it has always been a shocking, even offensive, symbol. It's supposed to be. Christ wasn't crucified between two candles during Solemn Evensong. The problem is not that it is an offense to anyone, but that it has become a bland, inoffensive symbol "of blessing or comfort" for Christians.

"It makes others tremble. The Jews of europe dreaded Easter from the middle ages on, because of the accompanying pogroms. This is appalling."

The history of Jewish-Christian relations is indeed appalling. Sanitizing our symbolic repertoire wouldn't make up for that sad history. Besides, why end with the cross? Why not abolish Holy Week and Easter? Why not just close up shop entirely? It isn't the cross that persecuted the Jews of Europe, after all, but European Christians.

Posted by: BillyD on Sunday, 19 April 2009 at 9:35pm BST

Billy D
"Don't look now, but if you do a little reading yourself - say, of the New Testament - you'll see that it has always been a shocking, even offensive, symbol."

The cross was a torture instruments which Christians subverted into a symbol of life over death, hope, love and living in peace with one another.

We then subverted it again to signify what it originally did - not the Christian acceptance of death as part of what it means to follow Christ, but Christians becoming the bringers of torture and death.
Quite the opposite of what it stands for for us!

Whether we can truly subvert the symbol one more time and make it universally recognised symbol of love, hope, life and peace through the acceptance (not delivery to others!) of suffering and death, is questionable.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 20 April 2009 at 10:53am BST

"The Jews of europe dreaded Easter from the middle ages on, because of the accompanying pogroms. This is appallling."

I can't make the connection between the horrendous behaviour of Christians towards Jews and the idea that we somehow have to do away with the Cross. Surely it is any remnant of our antiSemitism that should be gotten rid of, if any still exists, though I doubt there's much left of it in Western Christianity. Getting rid of or covering up one of our deepest most complex symbols can do nothing to expunge our antiSemitism, and might just make it easier for us to ignore the actual problem. How does doing away with the Cross imagery make us less antiSemitic? How many Jews would want us to do so? Likely as many as want us to stop saying "Merry Christmas", which would be few to none. Sorry, but I'm just not willing to accept some sort of "racial" or "credal" guilt for the sins of past generations, I have enough guilt over my current sins to be concerned with. I find it ironic that many of those who would so willingly accept this sort of "inherited guilt" for all kinds of past injustice to others are so resistent to the idea of Original Sin. Not saying you are one of those, all the same.

As has been said, it is SUPPOSED to be a problematic symbol. The idea that God, the Creator of all that is, could become one of His creatures was, and for many still is, bad enough, but that He should die an ignominious, shameful death by torture is simply preposterous. That's the point.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Monday, 20 April 2009 at 4:21pm BST

The late American comedian Bill Hicks usually had organised religion high on his list of targets and one of his pronouncements was to ask this of our saving sign, "If Christ is to return again, do you really think he wants to see another cross!!" I posed this question in one of our evening church get-togethers and the overwhelming response was, "mmm, ...I hadn't thought of it like that?" As rev. L.R. candidly points out, the symbol of our faith is an instrument of torture. How would we feel if tomorrow a new faith arose whose places of worship were marked by a hangmans noose or an electric chair? Of course Christ's sacrifice upon the cross is the central tenet of our faith: we are saved by His sacrifice, we are redeemed by His blood spilt upon it: we are saved and redeemed by Christ Himself - not by two perpendicular pieces of timber!!! So the question of an empty cross is a valid one. Paul wrote 'we preach Christ crucified' and so we do. We preach Christ scourged, nailed and bleeding on the cross. An empty cross, without Christ has, in essence, lost it's meaning; without Christ it has no power.

Posted by: paul on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 7:09pm BST

I find the vastly deep and complex religious symbology of our faith fascinating. Additionally, it must be remembered, as several of the above comments have pointed out, that iconography like the crucifix and ritual like genuflection play a hugely important role within people's faith, often providing the glue that allows their faith to carry them through difficult periods in their lives.
I think it's nevertheless worth pointing out a potential danger which must be avoided. Quite apart from causing offence or distress, many of our symbols and rituals run the risk of becoming 'empty,' like the crucifix of the sermon mentioned in the original post. The response to the words: "Lift up your hearts!" might as well be "we mumble meekly into our service cards to the Lord" on many occasions - if we are to follow a religion worth having, we actually need to engage our brains when we use symbology and ritual, always aware as to why we are doing what we are doing and what role this particular practice is playing. You can't help but wonder if many people who wear a crucifix merely do so out of habit, or to follow a perceivedly pious social norm. If this is the case, for these people it doesn't really matter whether or not such a symbol has connotations of pain or redemption, and they might as well have a tambourine around their necks.

Posted by: BenWeisz on Wednesday, 9 December 2009 at 12:08am GMT
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