Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Lift High the Cross: The Cross Is Everywhere, from Rearview Mirrors to Gravestones, Even Tattoos. Its Presence Reminds Us of Suffering and Tragedy, but Most of All Triumph

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Lift High the Cross: The Cross Is Everywhere, from Rearview Mirrors to Gravestones, Even Tattoos. Its Presence Reminds Us of Suffering and Tragedy, but Most of All Triumph

Article excerpt

CAN YOU SEE A CROSS FROM WHERE YOU'RE SITting? If you happen to be reading this on Catholic property--say, a church, rectory, convent, school, retreat center, or hospital--it's fairly certain that you can. Traditionally, Catholic households have also been sprinkled liberally with devotional objects, the cross prominent among them.

My grandmother kept her rosary on top of the television set, its crucifix resting on the jeweled bed of beads. Others may prefer a wall display of the brightly colored crosses of Latin America with their vigorous affirmations of rural life painted across the surface, or the plain, bare wooden beams of a cross already vacated by the resurrected Lord.

Some crosses portray the anguish of Jesus in unflinching detail, reminding us that God is no stranger to our suffering; while others hold the deceased Christ, eyes closed and head bowed, a silent witness to the beautiful words of John's gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Art and theology combine in every age to reimagine the cross: sometimes with Christ the King posing in front of it with arms liberated and raised as if to embrace us, or Christ the high priest robed in the attire of the celebrant, prepared to preside over the sacred liturgy of eternity itself.

Humble twisted sticks or braided palms from Holy Week may make up the crossbeams, or precious metals and jewels may unite to honor this holy symbol. And there's always that marketing classic: the plastic dashboard pedestal crucifix for your car, far down on the list of chic but as serviceable as any.

No matter what your level of piety, theological leaning, or taste in art may be, meditating on the symbol of the cross is just about as close as you come to a Catholic imperative. If you can't see a cross from where you're sitting, now's the time to run out and get one!

If we stop to think about it, the sign of the cross is inescapable in our lives. We are baptized into it, repeatedly blessed by it, sign ourselves with it at the beginning and end of every prayer and throughout our liturgies, and are buried under it at the end of our days. We may choose to wear the cross regularly around our necks as a sign of devotion, or simply to venerate it with the whole assembly each year during the Good Friday Passion service.

BUT THE CHURCH HAS SET ASIDE ANOTHER DAY FOR CONSIDering this sign: the celebration of the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross. Observed annually on the 14th of September, this year it falls on a Sunday, which brings the feast to our attention in a more visible way.

This celebration of the cross is rooted in layers of history and tradition. Originally, it should be mentioned, early Christians did not much employ the image of the cross, except for the bare ones carved principally on the tombs of martyrs. First-century Christians preferred to use the symbol of the fish--a reminder of Baptism--for the community at large. Before the fifth century, the depiction of the crucifix (a portrayal of the body of Jesus still affixed to the wood) was rare.

The original cross itself, the historical beams of wood upon which Jesus hung, had not been venerated in that first generation after the crucifixion. Tradition holds that it could not have been, even if someone had wanted to, because the cross was deliberately hidden. As the story goes, the Romans or religious leaders disposed of the wood immediately after the body was removed, throwing it into a well or ditch and covering it with stones and earth to keep the followers of Jesus from finding it.

That action, of course, does not show up in the record of scripture. But what emerges in the record of history is the particular person of Helena, mother of a boy destined to become Emperor Constantine.

Helena was a woman of humble circumstances in the late third century, who married a Roman general on his way to the top of the empire. …

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