Ancient Answers

A Simple Change in Symbolism

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On September 14th the Orthodox Church celebrates the Elevation (or Exaltation) of the Holy Cross. In Byzantium this was more than a holy day. In some respects it was the national holiday of the Byzantine Empire! Consider the primary hymn of the day:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the kings over the barbarians, and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (politeuma).

Many Orthodox churches today have de-politicised this hymn with translations like the following:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the faithful over adversities (or, obstacles), and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (or, your people).

But once you move past the imperial context of this great feast, you are confronted by some strong theology. Consider the following hymn from the Vespers of the feast. It is sung/chanted, yet reads like a theological treatise.

Come, all you nations, let us worship the blessed tree, through which has come the eternal vindication. For he who deceived our forefather Adam by means of a tree is himself ensnared by the Cross. And he falls headlong tumbling down, who formerly held the royal master-work in tyranny. By the blood of God, the venom of the serpent is washed away, and the curse of the just sentence is lifted by the unjust sentence on the Righteous One who was condemned. For it was necessary to remedy the tree by a tree, and to put an end to the passions suffered by the condemned at the free by the Passion of the Lord. Glory to you O Christ King; glory to the awesome plan for our salvation, by which you saved everyone, as you are good and the lover of humankind. 

Note the references to the Cross as “tree”. This is classic terminology and serves to contrast the tree of the Cross to the tree in Eden which was the instrument for the fall of the first human beings. It is this contrast that the hymn articulates and celebrates.

The high-point of the feast observance occurs at the end of Matins. The Great Doxology is sung and at the concluding portion a slow procession of the Cross takes place. The Cross is decorated with basil in the Greek tradition. (Flowers are also used: in combination with basil, or alone in parts of the world where fresh basil is not common.) Basil is basilikos in Greek, “of the king”, so in one sense it reconnects us with the imperial history of the feast. But the true King is, of course, Jesus Christ – so Jesus is the true reference of the basil. The Cross of King Jesus is embedded in basil and carried in a solemn procession to the centre of the church where a unique ritual takes place.

The procession ends at a small table that has been set up in the centre of the church in front of the gathered congregation. The priest stands in front of this table, intones a short prayer and then slowly lowers the cross toward the floor while holding it above his head and then raises it back up again above his head – all this while the choir or the chanters repeat the words “Kyrie Eleison.” Then the priest moves to stand facing the right side of the table, and the lowering and elevation of the Cross is repeated. Then the priest stands facing the rear side of the table, then the left side, and finally back to the front. So a total five times the ritual of lowering and elevating the Cross takes place.

The symbolism is clear. The table represents the world, the inhabited earth (oecumene). The Cross is raised on each of the four points of the compass to bless and protect the entire world. The tree of the Cross recreates the entire world; it reverses the fall which happened at the tree of Eden. The entire world becomes a restored Eden. Of course the vision is eschatological, but in the Byzantine Empire the message was also one of hegemonic power.

It struck me last night as I celebrated the feast in our church that we need a different symbolism to complement the traditional understanding. Instead of the Cross being raised while facing the table, why not face outward from the table at the four points of the compass? Instead of representing the world being blessed/protected by the Cross, the table represents the Church! And the Church faces outward, proclaiming the Cross of Jesus Christ to the world!

The subtleties of Orthodox and Byzantine symbolism are lost on most Orthodox Christians today, and it is incumbent on clergy and lay teachers to open the treasure chest that we have inherited. Why boast of the “Treasures of Orthodoxy” if they remain meaningless rituals that don’t inspire and motivate the Church to spread the gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ? And isn’t the visual message of looking outward instead of inward a needed corrective to the Orthodox tendency to look inward and live in the past?

(Unfortunately, no photos were taken of our vigil service, so the photos included here are from the Internet.)

2 thoughts on “A Simple Change in Symbolism

  1. Pingback: Lights of God rise in the darkness | Ancient Answers

  2. We don’t have this ritual in my tradition but it does sound powerful.

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