We know that when the Holy Cross is drawn or sculpted there are many different forms and representations. Here in Ireland and over the water in Scotland we are familiar with the Celtic cross, a simple cross superimposed on the solar annulus indicating the victory of Christ’s Resurrection beyond his death. This may also have had some significance in celebrating the Church’s victory over nature worship and specifically the cult of the sun. Today I have brought with me to the parish of St Ignatius Belfast a Coptic blessing cross with its characteristic equal crossbars and arrow type points. The knotted geometric designs of such crosses suggest a Christian artistic harmony between Ireland and Egypt. Many know of the reference in ancient Irish litanies to the seven Egyptian monks who settled in Ireland. There is also the reference in the monastery of Bangor’s Antiphonary to the transplanting of monasticism from the Egyptian desert. It reads:-
This house full of delight/ Is built on the rock/ And indeed the true vine/
Transplanted out of Egypt.
I am sure this is all very well known to you but I mention it to remind ourselves of the truly international character of Christianity in the early days of Ireland’s enlightenment in the gospel. St. Palladius was sent from Gaul although his ministry here was brief. St. Patrick of course was Romano-British, not a native Irishman. Nonetheless St. Patrick’s enduring legacy is that he firmly planted Christianity in Ireland and for this he is rightly venerated internationally as the Apostle to the Irish and the Enlightener of Ireland. All these missionaries of diverse backgrounds shared one fundamental conviction that Christ crucified and risen was for all because he had laid down his life for the sins of the whole world. They preached this message with words, but perhaps more importantly, they lived this messages by deeds. Like Christ, amongst great hardships, privations and sufferings, they took up their own crosses and thus became life-giving Christ-bearers, Christoforoi. In this they were simply but radically responding to the call of Christ; a call that we have all heard in today’s gospel:-
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, ‘Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?’
St. John Chrysostom comments on this text as follows:-
And this He says, because it may happen that a man may suffer and yet not follow Christ, that is, when he does not suffer for Christ’s sake; for he follows Christ who walks after Him, and conforms himself to His death, despising those principalities and powers under whose power before the coming of Christ, he committed sin. Then there follows For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whoever shall lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it. I give you these commands, as it were to spare you; for whoever spares his son, brings him to destruction, but whoever does not spare him, saves him. It is therefore right to be always prepared for death; for if in the battles of this world, he who is prepared for death fights better than others, though none can restore him to life after death, much more is this the case in spiritual battle, when so great a hope of resurrection is set before him, since he who gives up his soul unto death saves it.
Suffering, then, per se is not the point. Christianity is not some sort of death cult. The call to take up one’s cross is for “Christ’s sake” – for the sake of Him! It is a readiness in love for Him and for all those whom He came to save to sacrifice oneself for the gospel. Such a sacrifice is necessary because we live in a fallen world that can only be healed by Christ; and this includes, first before others, ourselves. The cross must become our healing first before we dare to exalt it before others, lest we cloud the message with the darkness of our own sins. First we have to become light ourselves if we are to reveal the Light of the world.
How then does the holy cross heal us? Well, not simply by kissing it, hanging it on a wall, admiring it or wearing it. All these actions are good but they are not saving without our willingness that the Holy Spirit draws us closer to the One who hangs on the cross; and not only hangs but reigns as a victorious warrior, destroying death, OUR death by HIS death.
After St. Patrick had planted the cross in Ireland we know that his descendants, our Celtic brothers and sisters, came over to Iona in Pictish Dalraida and from thence to English Saxon shores to plant the cross once more in an England which had seen the Church decline after the return of the legions to embattled Rome. They did more than this though. Celtic missionaries were to evangelise Germany and central Europe up to the point that Rome in the west began to recover. We now, of course, live in a very different, post Christian Europe. Ears that once heard the gospel have been dulled by over familiarity with a story which has since become distorted, twisted and sectarian.
Signs of hope however, are all around us; little seeds of spring after a long cold, hard spiritual winter. A monastery is about to flourish again on Mull, dedicated to All Celtic Saints. Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh Orthodoxy is striking sturdier roots into our soil. Peoples in these Isles are rediscovering their ancient faith and life in a fresh and new expression, yet still the same faith of our fathers and mothers of old.
There is a familiar international dimension to all of this of course because the Church is one and transcends culture and language. We have only one Saviour in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, (Galatians 3:28). The cross has a bar from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven but this and the other bar also stretches out in love to all points of the compass. Venerate and exalt this cross but above all in your hearts, for it is the cross in the heart that will once again transform this world.