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>From PCUSA NEWS <[email protected]>

Date Wed, 30 Mar 2005 16:02:24 -0600

Note #8683 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

March 29, 2005

Cross fertilization

Holy Land rife with Christian symbol of one and many meanings

by Alexa Smith

EAST JERUSALEM - In a mosaic-filled chapel in the corner of Holy Sepulchre
Church, Deacon Artur Harutyunyan is drawing an Armenian cross on a scrap of

Frustrated by his English, or rather, his lack of it, he draws

The cross is straight, its three edges upturned, like an inverted crown.
Sprouting from those curves are flowers, blooming wildly.

He looks up earnestly and says: "Yes, like lilies. Or flowers. Maybe
grapes on a vine. It is a symbol of life, yes? Sorry I don't speak very well

He has a slight hint of a beard and big eyes. At first glance, he
looks like a priest in his black, cassock-like robe.

But Harutyunyan is a deacon in the Armenian Orthodox Church and he
serves here, singing the liturgy and giving impromptu lessons on the
symbolism of the cross.

That isn't as simple as it sounds: Transforming an instrument of
torture into a symbol of life takes some doing, not to mention centuries of
theological wrangling.

Which is why Deacon Artur is so persistent, aided now by a young Pole
named Martin who has wandered into the chapel and overheard some of the

"You can find in Armenian crosses the tree of life," Martin says.

"I did not know that," says Martin's wife, Margaret, peering over
Artur's shoulder at a symbol of infinity he is drawing at the bottom of his
sketch. He points out that the cross stands in the midst of eternity.

"And on Armenian crosses, there is no Jesus because Jesus has risen,"
he tells Martin, who duly translates.

The two Christian quarters of Jerusalem's Old City are full of
crosses so many, in fact, that they all but disappear.

Rudimentary crosses are carved into the buttresses of ancient
churches, like St. James Armenian Church. More elaborate designs are
in seemingly random stones facing the courtyard.

In the vast corridors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are
only a few few ornamental crosses but one is large and dramatic, planted
firmly on the rock that tradition holds is Golgotha.

There are other, simpler crosses, etched in the pavement on the
rooftop chapel where the Copts worship. Others with the Greek letter X,
first letter of Christ's name, cut into the center are chiseled into the
cement doorways of the Orthodox chapel at Calvary. Those crosses are
of the holy fire that the Greek patriarch carries from Christ's tomb on
Orthodox Easter, this year May 1.

Still more crosses are painted above doorways. Another serves as a
hand-hold for pilgrims stumbling up a dimly lit stairway to a rooftop

Another is wound in steel above an entrance to a monastery off of the
cathedral's square central plaza.

They are so basic to Christian tradition, they almost go unseen. But
they are laden with centuries of symbolism culled by the world's most
churches. All testify to life overwhelmed by death and violence, suffering
and pain.

The Jerusalem Cross is one of the most popular items in Christian
gift shops here. The design is built around a large, central cross with four
other crosses tucked into the joints where the two beams meet.

Ask a sales clerk what the cross symbolizes and you get a different
answer at every store. One says the four smaller crosses stand for the four
Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Another says the five crosses
represents the five kings of Europe who launched the Crusades against Islam
in the Middle Ages and murdered their way through Jerusalem. In these
is represented by the dominant cross, with France, Spain, Germany and Italy
getting smaller-scale recognition.

An italicized sign in a Christian gift shop in the Old City says the
crosses represent the five wounds of Christ. Some say the Jerusalem cross
symbolizes Calvary: One big cross and two smaller ones on each side.

A dozen sellers will tell you their interpretations, nod
appreciatively at alternative stories and say that the cross means all of

But Father Eugenio Alliata, a Roman Catholic archeologist at
Flagellation Monastery on the Via Dolorosa, shakes his head. He says a
monk studied this in depth, and the original meaning - according to
fourth-century scholar Cyril of Jerusalem - is far more cosmic.

Jerusalem, represented by the stabilizing center cross, is the center of the
world. And it embraces the Earth with its arms - north, south, east and
It is depicted in a fourth-century mosaic in Nazareth. By the fifth century
A.D., it is almost commonplace.

"It is symbolic, not realistic," Alliata says.

Symbol, he says, is a potent force that early Christians understood.
"Crosses took many shapes from the beginning ... and, in the beginning,
was no Christ on the cross," he says.

Early Christians preferred representations of the cross to
naturalistic depictions of the crucifixion.

Rather, it was a boat with a mast, like a cross but not a cross. Or a
male figure standing with his arms stretched out to his sides. Or a letter
the ancient Hebrew alphabet, x, or the Greek symbol, T.

"When we represent the cross. we don't represent a historical (event)
... but the meaning," Alliata says in a rich Italian accent.

Eastern Christians, he says, have always been more at ease with
symbol, while Westerners lean toward realistic representations - embodied
best in the contemporary Catholic crucifix, which appeared for the first
on the door of St. Sabina's Church in fifth-century Rome.

"Early Christians did not represent Jesus in this way: A dead man on
a cross," the priest says. "(Maybe) it was too hard to understand the
meaning. ... It says this is real history, not mythology. This is something
that happened, really."

But the meaning of the Catholic cross cannot be graped by seeing only
the moment of death, Alliata says. The faithful must remember the entire
story of Jesus. "The meaning," he says, "is positive. In the suffering of
this man we see the salvation given by God to all humanity."

Twenty-eight-year-old Deacon Calistos is standing inside the Holy
Sepulchre's chapel at Golgotha, helping pilgrims light candles to illuminate
petitions made literally at the foot of the cross.

He is eager to talk about the ornate Greek Orthodox cross, with icons
where the beams cross - usually images of Jesus' mother Mary and St. John,
his beloved. And the sculpted top of the cross, which depicts God the
At the foot, typically, is a skull and crossbones, symbolizing death.

It is all about life, the journey of faith.

"The cross," Calistos says, "is like the soul of each person.
Vertically, it shows how the spirit goes to God, how our heart is dedicated
to Him. And horizontally, it shows love for others. Jesus opened his hands
the cross to take in the world.

"It really is the two commandments: Love God with all your heart and
soul and mind. And love your fellow human as yourself."

For Calistos, who says he no longer has a surname, the symbolism in
the cross is rich and deep and rewards study with insight.

The skull at its base is gruesome, of course. But the blood of Jesus
on the cross washes it away, cleansing even the first sin. Scanning it from
bottom to top illustrates how the human spirit passes from death to life. As
Deacon Calistos says: "All the way up. ... If you look at this cross ... it
says everything. The passion. The resurrection. All of his life comes to

The suffering it shows, Calistos says, helps Christians find the
strength to carry on, to carry their own crosses because the life of mercy
and love thay have chosen guarantees pain in a harsh world.

And the icons help people pray, he says.

"When you look at a picture of your mother, your father, someone
close to you - but they are far away - it helps you feel something
even if they are not so close," he says, and it is much the same with Mary,
St. John, Jesus. Or God.

The cross is a symbol that Orthodox integrate into worship. When
Greek Orthodox children are baptized, they are dunked three times into the
Baptismal font. The sign of the cross is then made all over their tiny
bodies, the hands, the belly, the toes, the chin, the forehead, sealing the

Congregants cross themselves in worship, beginning at the head,
saying, "God is powerful." Then the belly, saying, "God is immortal." And
right shoulder: "God is merciful," remembering the thief on the cross who
asked to join Jesus in Paradise.

A Kyrie Eleison (God have mercy) is said as the penitent touches the left
shoulder, remembering the unsaved sinner at the cross.

"The cross," Calistos says, "is a symbol of victory against death,
against evil.

When you study the cross, it represents life."

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