Have you seen anyone recently with a golden electric chair hanging from a chain around his neck? How about an elegant, elderly woman showing off a diamond guillotine brooch on her dress? Or maybe you spotted a buffed-up guy at GNC, buying a protein supplement while wearing a sterling silver noose over his tight workout shirt.
Me neither. Even in our depraved modern world, instruments of violent death aren’t used as style statements. (Let’s ignore Halloween decorations for the moment.) And yet the two crossed beams used for crucifixion, one of the most horrific forms of execution ever devised, is a common piece of jewelry, barely worth noticing.
The Cross as Fashion Statement
A few years ago, rappers and pop singers, dancers and socialites often wore gaudy, gold cross necklaces, sometimes encrusted with jewels. (Not so much anymore as hostility to Christianity grows.) When I think about the cheapness, the commonality, the commodification of the cross, I can’t find much of a connection to Jesus, who endured unimaginable suffering on it so that we could be united to God.
Instead the cross, worn as jewelry, emblazoned on a tee-shirt, or tattooed on a body part, functions more as a good-luck charm than a declaration of faith—a spiritualized rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover.
The cross is irrelevant to modern people: a fashion accessory or even a puzzling symbol. A local priest was recently reminded of the post-Christian state of our society. As he was shopping, a stranger came up to him and asked, “Why do you have a plus sign around your neck?” As he engaged him in conversation, the priest discovered that the young man had no idea who Jesus is. Of course an invitation to church followed.
The fact that a young American knew nothing about Jesus makes me stop and think about the “plus sign” around my own neck.
We Orthodox Christians treasure the cross, don’t we?
Blending into the Spiritual Scenery
At church we see a life-sized cross behind the altar every time we worship. In the icons surrounding us, many of the saints hold small crosses, identifying them as martyrs. Our priests make the sign of the cross, and so do we.
We wear our baptismal crosses around our necks and dangle crosses from our knotted prayer ropes. The cross is a pervasive part of the life of an Orthodox Christian, and its centrality to our Faith is undeniable.
The sight of a cross should turn our thoughts to Jesus. And yet…
As we plow through the daily business of life, the familiarity of the cross can breed…not necessarily contempt (at least I hope not!), but a sort of disregard. Too easily the cross becomes just another Christian symbol, an item stored in a jewelry box or painted on a church wall.
My response to it should be awe and wonder. But too often in my day-to-day life, I give the cross no thought at all.
The Church Reminds Us of What We’ve Forgotten
Once again I am grateful for the ecclesiastical calendar. It tells us that this Saturday, September 14th, is the Feast of the Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross (or Exaltation of the Cross), one of the twelve great feasts of the Church. (I won’t discuss the feast itself in this post, because no doubt the wonderful priests writing for Ancient Faith Blogs will offer some thought-provoking homilies on the subject this week. But for a bit of background, you can click here.)
The ecclesiastical calendar reminds us, year in and year out, of the things that are important. The things that we become numb to. The things that we no longer notice, because they are just a part of the religious scenery.
The Church calls us to remember, to wake up, to pay attention. The cross is worthy of veneration because of the One who made it holy by His voluntary sacrifice. Back in April on Great and Holy Friday, the cross was foremost in our minds. But time has passed. Our to-do lists have grown. And as memory and intention fade, the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross rolls around to show us, once again, that the cross is worth seeking, worth pondering, worth venerating. It has life-giving power because of the One whose blood stained it, who conquered death by death.
For most of our neighbors and coworkers, the rhythm of an ecclesiastical calendar is a throwback to the past, a vestige of an uneducated, naive historical era. Even among our non-Orthodox Christian friends, their ignorance of Church seasons reminds us that most branches of Protestantism ditched the schedule of feasts and fasts centuries ago.
But we need this feast, even though—and maybe because—it arrives during such a busy, harvest-time, back-to-school, new-fiscal-year season. Secular society fills our hours and our minds with its demands. It offers no “pause” button to stop and offer thanksgiving to anyone or anything greater than ourselves. The only society-approved time for reflection is on an expensive yoga mat during a paid, one-hour class before or after a busy workday.
After all, a pause is not easy to monetize.
But I, as a wanna-be-good Orthodox Christian, long to take the pause that this feast offers to reorient my heart and mind. And so I do my best to shoehorn that time of worship into my schedule, to collect my scattered thoughts and venerate the cross. I determine to give up an hour or so to stand in awe.
At the same time my heart and mind are annoyed by the intrusion. Attending this service is yet another thing to do during an already busy month. So many other opportunities and obligations beckon me.
And even now, rereading my words, I note that my perspective is one of fitting God and His Church into my schedule, not of building my schedule around His.
And so the Church calls me back again, to attend, to wonder, to give thanks.
As You were voluntarily raised upon the cross for our sake, / Grant mercy to those who are called by Your Name, O Christ God; / Make all Orthodox Christians glad by Your power, / Granting them victories over their adversaries, / By bestowing on them the Invincible trophy, Your weapon of Peace.
— Afterfeast Hymn of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
And so I return to the Cross. The horror of it. The glory of it. The fact that I wear one around my neck daily with only a rare thought of the suffering of the One I profess to love and serve.
I need this course correction. I need this interruption.
I hope to see you on Saturday.