Orthodox Thought for the Day


Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the wood of the Holy Cross

It was inevitable that something so mysterious and powerful would accumulate a rich history of legends that seek to explain its origins and its meaning. Legends are not necessarily fictional stories. They are simply stories that have been written down so that they can be read (Latin legere, "to read") again and again. They may not, in fact, be historically accurate, but they are often "true", nonetheless, because they express meaning figuratively, if not literally. One of the loveliest of these legends tells how basil plants sprang up from the ground under the Cross where drops of the Savior's blood fell. A related tradition says that Helena was aided in her search for the True Cross by a bed of basil that was growing over the very place where the Cross had been buried. Another tradition says that a sprig of basil which growing out of the wood of the Cross itself. The name of the herb comes from the same root as the Greek word for "king," basileus, thus it is an herb made for a king. In Orthodox churches, the cross that is exalted liturgically on this feast, traditionally rests on a bed of basil during the Liturgy. Basil may be blessed and distributed to the faithful on Holy Cross Day, and it would be appropriate to prepare and eat dishes that include basil, such as pesto, as part of the home celebration of the feast. Here is a Prayer for the blessing of basil.

Almighty and merciful God: Bless, we beseech thee, this royal herb of basil. As its aroma and taste delight our senses, may it recall for us the triumph of Christ, our Crucified King and the power of his blessed Passion and precious Death to purify and preserve us from evil; so that, planted beneath his Cross, we may flourish to thy glory and spread abroad the fragrance of his sacrifice; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

There are two different traditions about the origins of the wood of the Cross. The more familiar, Western, tradition relates that as Adam lay dying he instructed his son Seth to go the gate of Garden of Eden and to ask the cherubim guarding the entrance for a seed from the Tree of Life. This seed was placed in Adam's mouth after he died and was buried with Adam. The seed germinated and grew into a great tree which gave shelter to creatures of all kinds. In time, the origin of the tree and even the fact that it had grown over the grave of the first human being was forgotten. When the time came for Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem, wood was needed and he directed that this great, sturdy tree be cut down to be used in the construction. This was done. However, the wood from the tree was never suitable for the places it was needed. A board was either too short or too long, no matter how carefully it was measured. At last, the wood was discarded. A few years later, a bridge was being built for one of the approaches to Jerusalem and the discarded wood was incorporated into the project. When the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, it was necessary for her to cross this bridge. As she did, she heard a voice with a message which she reported to her host. She told Solomon that the wood of this bridge would be the means by which a new kingdom and a new order would be established in Jerusalem. Fearing that he would be overthrown and his kingdom taken from him, Solomon had the bridge torn down and the wood thrown into a cistern outside the wall of Jerusalem. There it lay for nearly a thousand years until it was once again put into service in the making of a cross for the execution of a man who claimed to be King of the Jews and became again what it had always been: the Tree of Life.

The Eastern tradition of the origins of the wood of the Cross is much simpler and rests on the interpretation of a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah: "The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious." (Isaiah 60:13) According to this tradition, after Lot fled from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, his uncle Abraham gave him a triple seedling, consisting of a cypress, a plane, and a pine. Lot took the seedling and planted it in the wilderness, where the three trees continued to grow together. Lot, badgered by the devil who wished to prevent the tree from growing, traveled back and forth to the Jordan River to get water for the tree. Many years later, when Solomon was building the Temple (here the legends converge for a brief moment), the tree was cut down and the wood was used in the construction. When Herod was rebuilding the Temple, this wood was taken out and discarded, and was later taken up again to be used for the Cross of Jesus. The first part of the verse from Isaiah refers to the three different woods being used in the building of the Temple. The interpretation of the final phrase, "I will make the place of my feet glorious," is that it is a reference to the footrest to which Jesus' feet were nailed on the Cross. Tradition says that the place where the tree grew was outside of the city of Jerusalem. A monastery has stood on that site since the 5th century. A series of icons, which can be seen on this website, depicts this version of the legend, though it omits the portion of the legend about the Temple.

The Cross has been depicted in different ways over the years. In the earliest years of the Church, the Cross was not depicted at all artistically. Through a combination of horror at the sheer brutality of crucifixion, which was still employed as a method of execution, and fear of persecution for openly professing Christianity by displaying obvious symbols associated with it, the Cross was rarely, if ever, used as a symbol of any sort by Christians in the first few centuries. Even when scenes from the life of Jesus were portrayed artistically, the Crucifixion was not. The vision at the Milvian Bridge, wherein Constantine saw a cross and heard the words, "In this sign conquer," began to change this attitude, for two reasons. First of all, the conversion of the emperor removed the threat of persecution. Secondly, out of reverence for the Savior, Constantine outlawed crucifixion as a method of execution. As a result, people began to lose their sense of the outrageousness of this form of punishment: they did not see people suffering in this way and had no experience of its personal impact. Crucifixion was known as an idea, not a reality, and was, to a certain degree, sanitized in the public mind. Even so, the first common representations of the Cross were of an empty cross, sometimes stylized and even decorated, which helped to remove the harsher aspects of it even more from the mind.

The next stage in the development of the Cross in art, with Jesus actually shown on a cross continued to avoid portraying him suffering. He was on the Cross, but he was alert, eyes open, and body relatively relaxed; alive, not dead, and not suffering. While the Church recognized that he suffered on the Cross, the emphasis was on his triumph. Indeed, the theology of the Church, enacted in its weekly Liturgy, saw the Cross and Resurrection as one event, not two. And that event entailed the victory of Christ and the redemption of his people. There was no irony in the fact that the imperial legions were led by standards with the Cross emblazoned on them. The cross to which the same soldiers, only a few years before, would have fastened criminals for their execution, was now a proud banner of victory in war. Suffering and death had nothing to do with it. It was left for a later age, and a culture to the West, to put emphasis on the suffering of the Cross. Even today, Orthodox icons of the Cross mute the suffering. Unlike medieval Western crucifixes on which a twisted body writhes in pain, Jesus in Orthodox icons appears almost peaceful.
Excerpted from:  http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/cross.htm

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