Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Life-Giving Cross

No visit to Rome, the Eternal City, would be complete without a visit to the Basilica of Saint Clement. A short walk away from both Saint John Lateran and the Colosseum, this ancient church is an architectural Victoria Sponge Cake, consisting of three levels; A medieval basilica on top, a far earlier church in the middle, and the dark dank remains of an ancient Roman street (complete with Mithraeum) beneath the two. The Mithraeum on the lowest level, and the wall-paintings on the middle layer are impressive in their own right, but upon entering the Church there is one treasure instantly beholden to the eye.

In the apse of this magnificent church is on of the most resplendent and opulent mosaics of the Christian world. It is quintessentially Roman, with a triumphal arch dividing the Apse from the main body of the Church, flanked by the imposing figures of "Agios Petrvs" and "Agios Pavlvs", the two apostles presiding over the altar below and gesturing towards the apse. On the triumphal arch there is a small picture of Christ blessing the faithful, but this is clearly not the focus of the church.

Unlike in later Western Churches the focus is not on a statue, of a magnificent altarpiece, or on a great window, or on a crucifix. Unlike in the East there is no Pantokrator solemnly presiding over the congregation. Instead, the apse mosaic is centred on one beautiful subject, the Holy and Life-Giving Cross.

We are all familiar with the Cross being called "Holy". In Anglican circles, September 14th is known by the unassuming title of "Holy Cross Day", and is these days linked to an Anglo-Catholic confraternity of like-minded priests. Yet how can we call the Cross "life-giving".

The cross was an instrument of torture. It is the weapon by which our Lord was put to death. It is the symbol of Deicide, the greatest sin of man, and of Regicide, when the Jews rejected their own anointed King. It is a symbol of oppression by a foreign power, upon which a native was murdered at the pleasure of a foreign potentate, by which the soil of the Promised Land was to soak up the Precious Blood of the Redeemer of the World.

And yet the cross is life-giving.

The cross in the apse of San Clemente in Laterano.

Above we see a closer look at the cross of Saint Clement's. In the centre is the crucified Lord. His head hangs limp. "It is finished". The sacrifice has been made. The Pasch's life has been offered to the Most High. And yet we can see that this is not a mournful scene. From the cross springs life. Vines and branches and leaves all shoot forth from the cross. From Adam's sin and the Tree of Life came death; from Jesus' sacrifice and the Tree of Death comes life.

The foot of the cross.

At the foot of the cross, water flows, just as it flowed forth from the side of the Crucified Christ. "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God." The water of baptism comes from the Cross as it is His death that enables us to enter into a New and Perfect Covenant with God. This is the value of the Cross. God uses the Cross to bring redemption, to bring new life, to bring us to himself, to bring reconciliation.

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Thanks be to God for the Holy and Life-Giving Cross.


madame evangelista said...

A beautiful post Augustine, thank you

Rob said...

It was in this Basilica that I realised I had a calling to a religious life rather than diocesan!

Augustine said...
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