The simplest of symbols

March 28, 2005

THE CROSS-FORMED BY TWO INTERSECTING LINES-IS THE SIMPLEST OF ALL SYMBOLS. It has also become the most common of all symbols throughout European society, displayed in countless forms on buildings, books, necks, crowns, ships’ sails and graves.

The cross appears on the flags of many European nations: Denmark, England, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Guernsey, Jersey, Iceland, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Scotland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, not to mention the ensigns of hundreds of cantons, provinces, states and cities across the continent.

It has also been misused as symbol and decoration by Crusader, Knight, Rosicrucian and Nazi, through to today’s Lonsdale-label-wearing neo-nazi.

Yet both the use and abuse of the cross is evidence of the indelible imprint the Easter story has made on the European peoples.

I have gathered a small collection of crosses from various corners of Europe and beyond. I’m fascinated how many variations on a theme there can be on such a simple symbol. Celtic cross and Armenian crosses, from Europe’s extremes, display remarkably similar interlaced designs. Coptic and Ethiopian crosses are reminders of Christianity’s early movement to the south. The Jerusalem Cross, the Maltese Cross, St Bridget’s Cross, St Nino’s Cross, the Orthodox cross and the Georgian Cross each have their own story and meaning, yet have one common origin. Like St Andrew’s Cross, St George’s Cross, St Patrick’s Cross and St David’s Cross, they all derive their meaning from the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Thousands of criminals across the vast Roman empire were executed on this instrument of cruel justice. But the cross has come to refer universally to the death of only one historical personage – Jesus of Nazareth. Remarkably only one crucifixion, other than that of the two thieves of the gospel story, has survived in the popular mind.

And yet, for the principalities and powers involved – Roman, Jewish and spiritual – the cross was to have been the end of the matter. The Romans were snuffing out a pesky troublemaker. The Jewish authorities were squelching the messianic aspirations of a Galilean. The powers of darkness calculated to thwart God’s rescue plan for humanity. For the heart-broken disciples too, the cross indeed seemed to have been the end of the matter.

How wrong they all were!

How brilliant was this plan to turn an inhumane Roman tool of excruciating execution into a globally recognised symbol of hope – the empty cross! What Satan meant for evil, God turned to good.

How clever to endow this, the simplest of all symbols, with the profoundest of all messages! For Jesus died to restore our relationship with God-the vertical dimension-and our relationship with our neighbour – the horizontal dimension. These two intersecting lines, vertical and horizontal, symbolised Jesus’ summary of the Law: to love God and neighbour.

Yes, how brilliant! How clever! How profound!

Principalities and powers in Europe and around the world continue to conspire to “end the matter”. Such efforts may enjoy a season of success but are ultimately doomed. In East Berlin, for example, communist authorities tried to eradicate all signs of the cross, and erected a towering communications mast in Alexander Platz with a red and white needle arising from a steel-coloured spherical observation platform. However, when sun shone, the pyramidical tiles coating the sphere reflected a brilliant cross-pattern seen for miles around on both sides of the infamous wall – to the delight of local believers.

Some time ago, I visited a fascinating place in Lithuania called the Hill of Crosses. For over a hundred years, it has been a site of the people’s defiance of oppression. Under heavy-handed Tsarist rule in the 19th century, a national uprising was brutally repressed. Many rebels were executed and some were secretly buried on this hill in the countryside, a site long sacred. A hundred crosses were set up in memory of the rebels.

During mass repressions of the Soviet occupation, Lithuanians suffered greatly. Hundreds of thousands were deported to Siberia from 1941-52, leaving whole villages totally deserted. In 1956 Lithuanians began returning home. They erected new crosses on the hill in gratitude for their return, in memory of their torture and suffering, and as memorials for those who would never return. The hill became a place of prayer for those still suffering. Passionate and openly anti-Soviet inscriptions often adorned the crosses, making the hill an open-air museum, a mirror of human suffering and inhumane oppression.

In 1961, the authorities came with bulldozers to raze the Hill of Crosses and erase it from human memory. Wooden crosses were burned. Iron crosses became scrap metal. Stone crosses were buried. The hill was declared a forbidden place, a place of ‘ignorance’ and ‘fanaticism’. Despite surveillance, new crosses kept appearing at night; at first small, then becoming bigger. The authorities tried more drastic measures. Yet projects to flood the area, block the roads, and turn the hill into an inaccessible island all failed over time. More crosses just kept appearing: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…

Finally in 1985, the government abandoned their hopeless task. Peace came to the Hill of Crosses. Three years later the revolution was well under way to overthrow the Soviet oppression. And in 1991, independence came at last to Lithuania.

Today this 10-metre high hill is an unimaginable forest of hundreds of thousands of crosses, some even say millions! The Hill of Crosses is truly a powerful declaration of hope in the face of tyranny. Like a giant pin-cushion, it is a monument of folk art with many hand-carved crosses; some miniature, others five metres-high; some intricate and elaborate, others crude and simple; most anonymous, and one large wooden sculpture of Christ crucified, a gift from the Pope.

Familiarity-or is it ignorance?- has bred contempt for the cross among many Europeans. Yet the reality of that victory at Calvary has continued to re-surface throughout Europe’s history: in new renewal movements within the Catholic Church, in the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, and in waves of revival that effected social transformation in 18th and 19th century Britain.

The Christian hope gambles totally on the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That empty cross means he is risen! It is the symbol of hope for all humanity – the hope of resurrection. And the hope of restored relationship, with God and with neighbour.

That’s what makes those two intersecting lines the profoundest of all symbols.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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