By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
As an icon painter, I’ve found that sometimes I pray best with a pencil or a brush in my hand. This has certainly been true as I’ve worked on various images of the Lord’s passion and death. A few years ago I did a book illustration based on a Byzantine fresco from Macedonia. A part of a larger cycle celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, it depicts the Holy Cross enthroned between two angels with smoking censers of incense.
The imagery of the icon is derived from the ceremonial of the ancient Roman imperial court. There, the Roman emperor, publicly acclaimed Lord and Savior and seated on his throne, was flanked with attendants who either held torches, as a sign of the dignity of his office or censers with burning incense, also signs of divine stature.
Christians, who for the first three centuries of the Church’s existence had denied and defied the divine pretensions of the Roman emperors, transferred the trappings of honor and worship shown to the emperor to Christ, the true Lord and Savior of the cosmos and to his saving and lifegiving Cross.
Christian liturgical practice subverted the lavish public processions of pagan Rome, in which the all-powerful Emperor, accompanied by flaming torches, incense and song, processed from his palace to the place of sacrifice. Instead, Christian processions were led, not by the emperor, wearing armor and the insignia of office, but by the cross, affixed with the image of the tortured and wounded Jesus. Following the cross, venerated with incense and honored with lit candles, were the gospels, the saving words of the Lord of Life and then followed the people of God and their bishop, priests, deacons and other ministers. Even when the Roman emperors became Christians (however imperfect their discipleship), they too walked with God’s holy people behind the Cross.
The procession with the Cross, (which since the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council is how we always begin and conclude our celebration of the Eucharist), in a striking and compelling way at once symbolizes for us the ultimate authority of Christ and relativizes and subverts any other allegiance in our lives. Authentic power and authority reside only in the One who willingly gave himself over to powerlessness, suffering and death in obedience to the will of the Father.
In the icon, the angels invite us to venerate Christ’s Cross with gratitude and joy but also to ponder the mystery and the paradox that the Cross represents. We are so habituated to seeing the Cross that has ceased to scandalize and trouble us. In his book, “The Strangest Way” Bishop Robert Barron writes about an interfaith conference that brought together Catholic and Buddhist monks at the monastery of the late Thomas Merton, Gethsemani Abbey. After a day or two of polite but tentative dialogue, one of the Buddhist monks from Thailand, who was completely unfamiliar with Christianity and its iconography, asked why the monks at Gethsemani seemed compelled to put up large and small sculptures of a tortured dead man seemingly on every wall of the monastery, including his cell. This was the beginning of a much more robust and frank dialogue between the participants!
Suffering and how to respond to it is an existential problem for all human beings. As I understand it, central to Buddhist thought and practice, for example, is the teaching by the Buddha that suffering is the result of our attachments and desires to the world, which is ultimately illusory. He taught that the solution to suffering is detachment from the desires and attachments that cause us and others to suffer. The Buddhist monk, as one unfamiliar with the mystery of the Cross found the images of the Crucified God at Gethsemani perplexing and disturbing.
As Christians we understand suffering in a different way. Not as the result of desire and attachment but as the result of that turning away from God and defiance of his holy will that we call the Fall. The suffering and death resulting from our estrangement from God, which can never lead to happiness or to life, cannot be healed by our own efforts but only by God’s gracious and loving initiative.
On the Cross, God, revealed most perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ, a divine Love that not only does not avoid suffering and death but embraces it. A love that embraces not simply ordinary suffering but the humiliating and shameful disgrace and scandal of crucifixion. Yet in God’s plan, by obediently, humbly and sacrificially embracing suffering out of love for sinful and lost humanity, Jesus, and through him all of humanity, were delivered from spiritual and physical death that resulted from the rebellious disobedience of our first parents when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The preface of the Mass for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which we celebrate on September 14th, praises the love of the Father made visible in Jesus and in the wood of the Cross itself.
“You [the Father] placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered…
It is this triumph of the Cross that we celebrate with such joy on this festal day especially, but every time we come together for the Eucharist and the other sacraments, when we make the sign of the Cross and when we gaze on the crucifix with love and thanksgiving.
We praise and we bless You, O Lord: for by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.