The Image of the Cross
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 4, 2021
I picked up my copy of the book MYSTICAL CHRISTIANITY: A PSYCHOLOGICAL COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN the other day. It is a brilliant book by the renowned psychologist John A. Sanford. I turned to the chapter where he speaks about the Cross and read something that piqued my interest.
He spoke of the image of the Cross as a mandala. Now I know that word might spark an avalanche of controversy, however, I think it is due to the fact that few Westerners actually know what a mandala is. They do not only belong to eastern religions, but are found in Christianity as well. For example, the rose window in the narthex of our church is a mandala-shaped window with a center point and arms reaching out to the four points of the compass. Many mandalas incorporate a cross that bisects the center of the picture. Our window does. I also think of the beautiful icon of the Virgin with Christ in her womb in a circle, the Virgin of the Sign. It too is very much like a mandala.
Here is a short definition. “A mandala is a geometric configuration of symbols used as a focal point in prayer and meditation, a symbol of the universe in its ideal form, and its creation signifies the transformation of a universe of suffering into joy.” In other words, a mandala is a kind of icon.
The Cross fits this description perfectly. Christ, the Author and Creator, the perfect image of the Father, came to transform the suffering of his creation into joy through the Cross. Christ is the center of the Cross which is the axis and symbol of our faith. The arms of the Cross reach out east and west embracing all creation. The vertical post unites earth and heaven. The Cross is the “axis mundi”, the cosmic axis.
One of my favorite cross designs shows the Cross sprouting like a blossoming and fruit-bearing tree. This reminds us of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis which is seen as a metaphor of the Cross. There are numerous other such metaphors in the Old Testament like Moses tracing the sign of the Cross over the Red Sea, horizontally to open it and vertically to close it again. And the wood Moses tossed into the bitter water of Mara to make it sweet.
So, yes, the Cross is like a mandala, the Great Christian mandala, around which our lives and the cosmos revolve. As a focus of prayer and meditation it leads us into the Truth. The Cross grounds us both historically, psychologically and mystically. The Cross is the mandala of hope in the midst of our suffering.
As an aside: in my Ma-Maw’s Freewill Baptist Church I once witnessed a veneration of the Cross believe it or not. They decorated a Cross set up in front of the Church with Christmas lights and processed around it singing a hymn I wish I could remember. I was amazed. We will do that today as well (without the Christmas lights).
Fr. Luke Veronis beautifully relates a story from the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that I would like to read to you.
“Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who spent many years in the gulag of Siberia, bears witness to the power of the cross. After long suffering in the work camp of Siberia, he fell into despair. His days were filled with backbreaking labor and slow starvation. On a particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much. He saw no reason to continue living, to continue fighting the system. He thought that the rest of his life was meaningless since he would most likely die in this Siberian prison.
Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude work-site bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to many other prisoners.
As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn's feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed…in that moment, he knew that there was something greater than the evil that he saw in the prison…He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented in that simple Cross. And through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.” The old man drew a Cross. A cruciform mandala in the dirt.
In the wonderful film “Inherit the Wind” a fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Spencer Tracy, playing the thinly-disguised defense attorney Clarence Darrow, makes a comment at the end about his opponent (the William Jennings Bryan character) a conservative, evangelical firebrand of a prosecuting attorney played by Frederick March. As he tried to deliver a long-winded sermon at the end of the trial, March’s character collapses and dies. An atheist journalist played by Gene Kelley asks Tracy what he thought of the man. Tracy replied, “There is greatness in the man. The problem is he looked for God too high and too far.”
The Cross teaches us not to look too high and too far. The Cross keeps us grounded in the earth, in the present reality that stretches out around us as it transforms our suffering into joy. The Cross is the mandala of salvation and hope that speaks to us of the depth of God’s love and of joy in the midst of suffering.