Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cross as Noose, Noose as Symbol

Finally I'm getting this post finished! I can't believe how long this is taking me and how busy I have been!

As for the bishop, the sight of the guillotine was a shock to him, from which he recovered only slowly. Indeed, the scaffold, when it is there, set up and ready, has a profoundly hallucinatory effect. We may be indifferent to the death penalty and not declare ourselves, either way so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we do, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to choose sides, for or against. Some, like Le Maistre, admire it; others, like Beccaria, execrate it. The guillotine is the law made concrete; it is called the Avenger. It is not neutral and does not permit you to remain neutral. Who ever sees it quakes, mysteriously shaken to the core. All social problems set up their question mark around that blade. The scaffold is vision. The scaffold is not a mere frame, the scaffold is not an inert mechanism made of wood, iron, and ropes. It seems like a creature with some dark origine we cannot fathom, it is as though the framework sees and hears, the mechanism understands, as though the wood and iron and ropes have their own will. In the hideous nightmare it projects across the soul, the awful apparition of the scaffold fuses with its terrible work. The scaffold becomes the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, eats flesh, and drinks blood. The scaffold is a sort of monster created by judge and carpeter, a specter that seems to live with an unspeakable vitality, drawn from all the death it has wrought.

Thus the impression was horible and profound; on the day after the execution, and for many subsequent days, the bishop seemed overwhelmed...One evening his sister overheard and jotted down the following: " I didn't believe it could be so monstrous. It's wrong to be so absorbed in divine law as not to perceive human law. Death belongs to God alone. By what right to men touch that unknown thing?"

Good Evening, Dear Reader.

The preceding excerpt flowed from the pen of Victor Hugo in his epic work Les Miserables, Fantine, Book One, IV (Works to Match Words). Reading to my brother several days ago (now a week and a half ago), this passage re-awakened a personal sadness over impoverishment of symbols and their meaning in the full sense of the word "symbolic."

Imagine wearing a guillotine or a scaffold around your neck. Imagine hanging a picture of a corpse swinging from the gallows on your wall. Imagine tracing a noose around your neck with your fingers. Imagine praying before a rack or torturer's wheel. Are you feeling nauseated yet?

Yet, as Christians, we do many of these things (their equivalent, at least) quite regularly.

For what is the Cross but an instrument of torture and death? And it was as much a symbol as the guillotine of Hugo's day to the Roman world. What was said of the guillotine and scaffold above that could not be said of a cross?Before God died upon it, the cross was a horror, the embodiment of shame and excrutiating, prolonged death. And for the Jewish and Pagan world encountered by Christianity in it's early years, the cross was still such a symbol. Hence "the reproach of the cross" and the "foolishness of the cross" and the "shame of the cross."

Now, culturally, it's merely decorative. We arrange flowers on it. We put it on our walls, on our shirts, in our churches, around our necks in silver and gold, stick it to our cars, even tattoo it on our bodies without even stopping to think about what we're doing.

But the Cross "is the law made concrete." It is not pretty. It is gory and revolting. One can talk all one wants about crucifixion and remain unaffected - just as I could mention "drawing and quartering" until I saw Gibson's Brave Heart. Now even the words sicken me. (For those who have read Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw [a perfectly frivolous work except for some delightfully profound lines] one might think of "the Chaplain"'s reaction to Joan's burning.) Would we be as silly, unthinking, and irreverent today in our use of the Cross if it were still the norm in criminal punishment?

Though we have never witnessed crucifixion ourselves, we nevertheless confess the Cross as the means by which Christ won salvation for the whole world by incalculable suffering. What does it say about our God and His sacrifice to lightly treat the symbol of His agony in our flesh?

I think of the days prior to my awakening to orthodox catholicity when I was party to mockery of Roman Catholics using the Sign of the Cross. (Yes, Confession time) Sure, I can plead ignorance - the "Romophobia" (term borrowed from an Anglican friend at Hope) of the circles in which I revolved in my early life. But that doesn't diminish the significance of the act. In fact, it almost underscores a new sort of shame which attaches itself to the cross these days.

1. There is a sort of shame among the Protestant contingent when it comes to any relation between the body and spirituality. For many of them, there's a disconnect between spirit and body, the two are treated separately, and the idea that something done to the body could have any spiritual significance is often spurned as false and superstitious. * Thus the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist cannot have any effect upon the soul, besides being "bodily" signs to remind the Christian of "spiritual" things.

2. As said above, the cross, culturally, has become almost "merely" decorative. There is a deliberate, if ignorant of the purport of the action, impetus to separate the cross from its function. (Perhaps there is a link to Modernism and Post-Modernism here that needs to be explored.) People (generic populace) do not automatically think, "grotesque death" when they see a cross. They think, "religious," "christian," "jewelry," or any number of other categories (which they also often incorrectly define). This is especially aided by the Protestant de-body-ing of crosses. Remove the corpus and you've got two perpendicular lines intersecting. With the corpus, the average yokel might think, "Catholic," "Jesus," "church," or even "corpse," before he gets going on the aforementioned list.
People simply don't see a cross as a cross anymore. The sign is no longer symbolic of its function .
This "de-body-ing" the cross does away with the shame of death. But somehow, effacing the shame of the corpse of true Man from the cross, does not mesh with an understanding of the true God who truly became incarnate of the Blessed Virgin bodily, truly suffered bodily, truly died bodily, and was truly raised bodily.

So, on two counts, the mockery of the Sign of the Cross went awry. First, it operated on a false confession that what is done in the body does not matter. A sign doesn't do anything, therefore it is superstitious. Never mind whether it can confess the faith - that's done "with the mouth." Second, it failed to even remotely recognize the intrinsic meaning of the symbol as relating to either death or Christ. Both in the secular and sacred senses, none of the little "sitters in the seat of mockers" made any further connection with the bodily tracing of the fingers than "superstitious Catholics." We felt no shame, because we recognized neither shame nor glory in the simple geometric shape of the cross.

What is left of the glory if the shame never was?

I mean, if there was no intrinsic shame in the cross, why is it such a wonderful thing that Christ has made this tree glorious?

At any rate, there's a lot to chaw on. I'm more and more convinced that words and actions mean and do things - they aren't meaningless, even when they are misunderstood and misused. The spirit is not separate from the body. Rather the spirit lives in the body - not in an alcove, but permeating and filling the material in such a way that both together constitute one being, "the reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting." Even so, (if not quite so precisely) signs and symbols are not mere combinations of color and line, words not mere combination of sound. But each contain within themselves a fullness of history and usage. (This is why I'd often rather have a used book than a new one. Used books bring love with them in dirt and scuffs, in yellowed repair tape, and reglued pages.) This culture has cheapened our words and symbols by both a reductionistic approach and an approach that denies a real reality. To weed a garden is not the mere mechanical motions by which a hand grasps a plant stem by means of muscular contractions and extracts it from the earth, but rather an action comprehending and participating in the weeding of all gardens by all women, the nurturing of family, the tending of soil, yes, even suggesting an icon of the work of the Ministry and unseen Spirit. In the same way, a cross is not two intersecting lines alone, but comprehends every crucifixion and death, justice and injustice, pain, ridicule and shame, culminating in the one great crucifixion which implicates life, justification, vindication, glory, and resurrection in the one word or symbol of a simple cross.

As Hugo says of the Guillotine, the Cross is a living thing, three dimensional in its function, physically and metaphysically. And more than that. In each dimension, the Cross is a paradox as justice meets injustice, sin enounters holiness, glory transforms shame, life conquers by death, perishable is raised imperishable, as the immortal God-who-is-Man dies in order that He might not live without us and that we might live as He lives, sharing the same body.

And Arg! It's 11:57pm. It so annoying to have a brainwave the night before church. I so hope I'll still be alert tomorrow for the sermon. Someone, just slap me. :P

*Luther (in The Freedom of the Christian does say, " And so it will profit nothing that the body should be adorned with sacred vestments, or dwell in holy places, or be occupied in sacred offices, or pray, fast, and abstain from certain meats, or do whatever works can be done through the body and in the body... On the other hand, it will not at all injure the soul that the body should be clothed in profane raiment, should dwel in profane places, should eat and drink in the ordinary fashion, should not pray aloud, and should leave undone all the the things above mentioned, which may be done by hypocrites."
But to say that this passage corroborates the prevalent Protestant position refered to above, is to ignore the sentence which sits between these two preceding and clarifies them: "Some thing widely different will be necessary for the justification and life of the soul, sincethe things I have spoken of can be done by an impious person, and only hypocrites are produced by devotion to these things."

Luther does not say that the soul and body are disconnected or that nothing done to the body can affect the soul and vice versa. He was not so foolish. Indeed, we are saved body and soul by Baptism - a sacrament of water accompanied by the Word and Spirit of God applied to the body to convert the whole person, marking them as redeemed by Christ Crucified for the life everlasting. (See Luther's Catechisms on Baptism) No, the simple point Luther aims to make is that justification is not meritoriously gained by a man's actions. Man is justified by faith - not a belief he works up for himself, but the gift of God which simply receives the forgiveness freely given into its hands by Christ. It is not a striving or reaching for, but a bodily open mouth into which another delivers sustenance. The soul is not removed from the body, but lives in the body and through the body.
Would we assert that what is done in the body is unrelated to the soul we might expect Luther to respond, "Not so, impious men, I reply; not so. Tht would indeed really be the case, if we were thoroughly and completely inner and spiritual persons; but that will not happen until the last day, when the dead shall be raised. As long as we live in the flesh, we are but beginning and making advances in that which shall be completed in a future life," etc. Not that in heaven we shall be bodiless, for what then would be the purpose of confessing that we believe in "the resurrection of the body"? As Hugh of St. Victor says (refer to Treasury of Daily Prayer, Writing for Friday, Easter 7), "But if I shall rise in an ephemeral body, then I shall not be the one who rises. For how is it true resurrection if the flesh cannot be true? Therefore, clear reasoning suggests that if the flesh will not be true, without doubt the resurrection will not be true. So also, our Redeemer showed His hands and side to the disciples who doubted His resurrection He offered them His bones and flesh to handle, saying: 'Handle and see: for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see me to have.'"
All that to say that this Protestant idea is by no means an orthodox one nor can it be properly ascribed to Luther.


Pine Cone Boy said...

*claps wildly* Excellent work.

It's interesting you should post this now. For the past few weeks (as I've been reading Leviticus), I've been pondering the significance of the old covenant system of regulations and sacrifices, and the fact that these make very little sense within the Protestant notion you've mentioned.

It's puzzling why God would be so thorough and strict with the ceremonial laws if they were merely meant to be shadowy indicators of things to come, with no actual value in themselves. Of course, they did point forward to Christ's sacrifice, but it makes much more sense to look at them (like Augustine and Aquinas did) as more than that, as true sacraments: not the cause of atonement (since it is impossible for the blood of goats etc.), but a real participation in the final atonement Christ would make for us (though of course, in a reality we cannot fully understand, he had truly already made it even then).

TruthQuestioner said...


It's actually fascinating to watch the Protestants try to justify or come to terms with the OT Law. They can't seem to be satisfied with treating it as arbitrary rules, but they just don't seem "capable" of thinking sacramentally in any sense of the word. Instead, they get all excited about little health discoveries in the Torah and cleanliness techniques. They talk about the Torah being obselete for us New Testament people without realizing that the Torah is only obsolete because it REALLY DID "point forward" to Christ in a way that *brought* Christ to the people, applying the Gospel to them for the forgiveness of their sins by means of the visible, bodily signs which God had attached to His Word and covenant.

The "sacramental" nature of the OT sacrifices hit me one Bible Class last year when Pr. S discussed Hophni and Phineas' theft of the fat of the tabernacle sacrifices. By taking the fat portion that was to be offered to God, the priests were essentially robbing the people of the sacraments, the OT means of grace!

Etc, etc. and I ramble on...