The piece of wood on which Je­sus was cru­ci­fied has be­come a mark of both con­dem­na­tion and sal­va­tion, writes Ger­ard Wind­sor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor’s

This is a book about the fe­cund life of a sym­bol. When the Ro­mans thrust a cross into the ground in their Ju­daean province and hoisted a Galilean trou­ble­maker, Je­sus, on high, they set off a gush of metaphors and analo­gies. The im­pli­ca­tions, the con­nec­tions of Je­sus’ form of death were teased out and the re­sult has con­trib­uted much to that aes­thetic rich­ness that is one of the glo­ries of Chris­tian­ity.

The writ­ers of the Gospels seized the op­por­tu­nity at once. “When I am lifted up from the earth,” St John records Je­sus as say­ing, “I shall draw all men to my­self.” To die in an el­e­vated po­si­tion with arms out­stretched was far more po­tent than to be be­headed or hanged or burned or poi­soned.

What most set off the dis­ci­ples and the­olo­gians and imag­i­na­tive artists (and they were fre­quently the same per­son) was the ma­te­rial from which the cross was made: wood, part of a tree. How suit­able it was, the com­men­ta­tors said, that when the first man, Adam, had sinned and lost par­adise it had been be­cause of a tree.

But now the bridge back to par­adise had been re­stored and hu­man­ity saved from the con­se­quences of sin by an­other representative man’s em­brace of a tree.

In a won­der­fully pleas­ing, sat­is­fy­ing way the elab­o­ra­tions went much fur­ther. The cross had in fact been hewn from Adam’s tree. The tree, as well as hu­mankind, had been re­deemed.

Then, as John Donne memorialised it, “We thinke that Par­adise and Cal­varie, / Christ’s Crosse, and Adam’s Tree, stood in one place.”

So an­cient tra­di­tion had it that Gol­go­tha, mean­ing the place of the skull, was the site of Adam’s grave as well as his sin. Hence many artists’ ren­di­tions of the cru­ci­fix­ion show a skull at the base of Christ’s cross. All hu­man be­ings die be­cause of Adam, all are re­born be­cause of Christ.

On and on the elab­o­ra­tions have gone: the cross is the ul­ti­mate “tree that springeth green” for its fruit has been brought back to life. “The fruit of that for­bid­den tree … brought death into the world, and all our woe,” as Mil­ton had it, but the fruit of the tree of the cross brought back life.

Not only was Christ’s cross an in­stru­ment that stretched back to the be­gin­ning of the hu­man story, it was sig­nalled and re­called ev­ery­where in the present. Early Chris­tian com­men­ta­tors saw it in ships’ masts, le­gionar­ies’ ban­ners, farm­ers’ ploughs, even in the hu­man form it­self.

This ir­re­press­ible in­ven­tive­ness of the cross ex­tended to the orig­i­nal’s (or at least the pu­ta­tive orig­i­nal’s) own ma­te­rial re­al­ity. Re­dis­cov­ered and un­earthed in AD324 by Helena, the mother of Con­stan­tine, it be­came a ver­i­ta­ble cut-and-come-again cross; Pauli­nus of Nola ac­tu­ally ar­gued that the cross, although con­stantly di­vided, suf­fered no diminu­tion. (De­spite that, priests in the sixth cen­tury were


worried about Jerusalem pil­grims kiss­ing the cross and try­ing to bite off and se­crete sliv­ers of the wood in their mouth.)

Nat­u­rally le­gends and apoc­rypha blos­somed well be­yond the con­fines of the Gospels.

An in­di­vid­ual scene in Piero della Francesca’s great cy­cle in Arezzo, Italy, The Leg­end of the True Cross, il­lus­trates one such story. Far in the back­ground of the tableau de­pict­ing the death of Adam is some­one talk­ing to an angel. Adam had sent his son Seth to the gates of par­adise to ask for just a twig from the tree of life whose balm might ease his suf­fer­ing. But Seth is stopped by the archangel Michael, who says the day has not yet come when the tree of life will be once again avail­able to hu­man­ity.

Robin M. Jensen, pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame in In­di­ana, surges through the mil­len­nia sweep­ing up char­ac­ter­is­tics and odd­i­ties of the cross. She notes sig­nif­i­cant changes in its style and mean­ing.

For the first few Chris­tian cen­turies crosses had no fig­ure on them. When one was al­lowed, Je­sus and his cross were state­ments of tri­umph, as­sert­ing that death had died.

But by the end of the Mid­dle Ages the em­pha­sis had changed to a suf­fer­ing Christ. The point of the cross now was to move the faith­ful to feel what Je­sus had gone through for them. The an­guished and con­torted fig­ures of Span­ish cru­ci­fixes must be the clas­sic case. (In a sec­tion rel­e­vant to the other book re­viewed here today, there’s a dis­cus­sion of the cross and the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion that opens with Martin Luther’s artis­tic ally Lu­cas Cranach the Elder).

The ma­jor cu­rios­ity of this easy-to-read book, from the most aca­demic of all pub­lish­ers, Har­vard Univer­sity Press, is its com­plete lack of any in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ment. It strews mean­ings and ex­am­ples prodi­gally, but its au­thor re­mains ut­terly po-faced when you’d ex­pect some ar­gu­ment or at least dis­cus­sion.

Surely she could have said some­thing about the unique phe­nom­e­non of a re­li­gion hav­ing an ut­terly neg­a­tive sym­bol as its defin­ing badge? Or about a his­tor­i­cally ver­i­fi­able crim­i­nal be­ing ac­claimed as God? Couldn’t Jensen have gone a lit­tle bit fur­ther, in other words, than merely point­ing out some se­man­tic para­doxes?

Not easy ques­tions cer­tainly. Less con­fronting ones, how­ever, that she ac­tu­ally ad­verts to, she is just as ready to slide around. An early his­tor­i­cal is­sue and a mod­ern ide­o­log­i­cal one il­lus­trate the point. Jensen sim­ply makes no com­ment at all about the au­then­tic­ity of the story of Helena find­ing the true cross. She gives us mul­ti­ple vari­ants but es­chews any trace of a sum­ming-up ar­gu­ment.

Then, in her fi­nal pages, she re­ports that fem­i­nist the­olo­gians “have ar­gued that the im­age of the cru­ci­fix­ion has been used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for abuse and even vi­o­lence against women and marginalised peo­ple”. There, if any­where, a reader might ex­pect a bit of flesh­ing out of the po­si­tion and some con­sid­ered reflections on it. But not a peep. Such ret­i­cence does noth­ing to sug­gest that the­ol­ogy is an in­tel­lec­tu­ally ro­bust dis­ci­pline. new book is The Tem­pestTossed Church: Be­ing a Catholic Today.

The Bap­tism of Christ by Piero della Francesca (c1450s)

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