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The Holy Cross

By Philip H. Pfatteicher


Throughout much of the Christian Church, 14 September is celebrated as a feast of the Holy Cross. By focusing on the visible cross, the Christian church is making a rich and manifold proclamation. Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) in his hymn “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle” reflects one aspect of devotion to the cross. Its wood and the nails, transformed by the One who hung on them, are addressed as “sweet.” In John Mason Neale’s translation,

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.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigor
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend.
[The English Hymnal no. 96]

The tree of the cross is asked to become, for the hours of crucifixion, a tender and sustaining mother.

In St. John’s Gospel, the moment of Christ’s death is in fact the moment of his glorification. Jesus dies with a cry of victory, “It is finished”; his work of redemption had been completed. The Roman instrument of death has been transformed and becomes a sign of victory. Such an understanding is clear in the proper Preface of the Cross in the Roman and Lutheran liturgy: “. . . O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty and Everlasting God, who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to humanity, that whence death arose, thence life also might rise again, and that he who by tree once overcame, might likewise by a tree be overcome, through Christ our Lord.” In a wonderfully concise way, two trees are brought together: the tree in the Garden of Eden by which Satan tempted humanity’s first parents to disobey the clear command of the Lord God, and the tree of the cross on which the Second Adam, the progenitor of a new race of humanity, by his obedience, overcame the temptation of the destroyer.

Medieval legends preserved the profound insight by making the two trees in fact one. One version imagines that when Adam was expelled from paradise, he took with him some seeds of the forbidden tree and planted them in his place of exile. They grew into a tree that when it was cut down became a pillar in Solomon’s temple. When the temple was destroyed the wooden shaft was buried, and then later unearthed by the Roman soldiers who were charged with the execution of Jesus and became the cross on which he was crucified. Moreover, the cross was planted on the very spot of the first Adam’s death, and so a crucifix is often shown with Adam’s skull at its base. The whole sweep of salvation history, from creation to crucifixion, was brought together on Golgotha.

Book of Kells, Folio 114r
Book of Kells, Folio 114r, Arrest of Christ. Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 a.D. : From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, & Trinity College, Dublin, Metropolitan Museum of Art & Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1977. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Latin Gospel Book known as the Book of Kells, one of the only two surviving full-page narrative scenes, folio 114r, shows Christ, looking directly at the reader, flanked by two figures holding his arms. The scene is usually understood as a portrayal the arrest of Jesus, but closer examination, with the whole of the Bible echoing in our minds, suggests a more complex scene. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane has been struggling with his vocation and has prayed to his Father to take away the cup of suffering (Matt. 26:39). He did not want to die and sought some other way of delivering his people. The two figures holding his arms seem to be pulling Jesus’s resistant arms outward as indeed they will soon be extended on the cross. Those extended arms will be seen as signifying an embrace reaching out to the whole world. Moreover, in Exodus 17:11-12, Moses watches the battle between Israel and Amalek. When his hands are extended as if in blessing, his people have the advantage in their battle; when he tires and lowers his hands, the battle turns against them. Aaron and Hur, one on each side, therefore hold up Moses’ hands to steady them “until the sun was set,” and so Israel was victorious that day. The scene in the Book of Kells brings together the support rendered to Moses and the extension of Jesus’ hands not only as an appealing embrace but also as a sign of blessing of his people as they engage in their battle against the forces of evil.

The Book of Common Prayer collect for Monday in Holy Week asks, “Grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” The divinely appointed way of the cross may be unwelcome, but there is no other way into the heart of God.  William Penn put it succinctly: no cross, no crown.

Philip H. Pfatteicher is Professor of English and Religious Studies Emeritus at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and sometime adjunct professor of sacred music at Duquesne University. He is the author of Journey Into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year.

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