Thursday, 22 December 2016

The idolisation of the cross - a reflection

The early Christian Church never used the cross as a symbol preferring the ICTHUS and the Chi - Rho among many others but since its adoption some 400 years after Christ's death it has become ubiquitous with the Christian faith.  Like any symbol it has changed from a simple Roman or Greek cross to more ornate ones such as the Jerusalem cross.  Indeed before becoming associated so firmly with the Christian faith it was associated with pagan worship.  During the reformation it became a point of dispute even amongst those who were protesting.  The traditional cross with the corpus as seen in many catholic and orthodox churches was accepted by Luther and Lutherans but rejected as being idolatrous by other protestant denominations.  In more recent times the bare cross has become more of a norm in churches than the crucifix as it is sometimes said that Christ should not be left on the cross as he is resurrected and ascended.  So when does veneration or contemplation of a symbol become idolatry?

To my mind this is an important question to ask, especially if in our liturgy the cross becomes such a focal point of worship that to turn away from it is to bring the worship experience to an experience of devastation.  I have no issues with the cross or crucifix being a point of meditation, a useful symbol that points to greater things.  In this we see that the symbol like an icon, as a path into a spiritual landscape that is beyond the immediate.  It becomes a window onto God but this is not worship and is only peripheral to the worship experience not its essence.  In the empty cross are we creating an incomplete symbol, one that is more attuned to the modern sensibilities that avoids the horror of a tortured body.  In using this as a focal point of worship are we neglecting the reality of Christ's presence in our neighbour.  We can make up any faith-filled excuse to have an empty cross (Jesus was taken down, Jesus is resurrected, Jesus is ascended) but are these just excuses for not looking at our neighbour and for not seeing Christ.

Has the cross become an idolatrous excuse not to see the plight of our neighbour?

In a chapel or circular seating arrangement for worship we are looking at each other during the worship as compared to a traditional Church seating pattern.  It may seem strange for us to see the face of the other but in seeing, truly seeing, a face we acknowledge Christ in our presence.  In seeing someone in tears during a funeral we are seeing Christ mourn.  In seeing someone's joyous expression during a wedding we are seeing the joy of Christ.  In wanting to focus on the cross we are abandoning Christ to the cross as we turn away from the joys, misery and hurt in the world.  Indeed in having a bare cross, no more nowadays than a form of adornment with no faith commitment, are we not also fleeing from the idea of death.  Death has to come before Christ can be resurrected and ascend.  It is at the moment of death, death on the cross that we see the saving work of Christ.  It is from death that the seed of new life comes in the resurrection so how do we acknowledge this, how do we accept this in today's world of denial?

As we near the celebration of Christ's birth this reflection may seem strange but what better time as we come to celebrate a new beginning to reflect how we treat the end.  If we start our new year with a new attitude towards our symbols maybe, just maybe, we will accept our neighbours and see them as the incarnation of God in our lives.  In doing so we may be more loving, more accepting and more able to challenge the injustices that we see in the world.  But if we remain focused on the cross could it be that we are keeping Christ there, crucifying him over and over and over.......again.

1 comment:

Chris Elders said...

This is a very powerful message, and one I recall hearing before - that we should see Christ in our neighbour (was is it at the reconciliation service?), or, as you say here, that we should see Christ in those who sit opposite us. As someone from the reformed tradition (rather than anglicanism) the cross has never been at the centre of my worship, but I think a focus for meditation is a useful thing - be it a cross, a fish, the person opposite or next to us, or the beautiful sky or trees outside our church. Whatever we focus on, I guess the important thing is to recognise Christ's Kingdom among us, and not as something separate from our world. Heaven on earth?