Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Way of the Cross and or Crucifix

There is a story in the British newspapers about how an employee of British Air challenged her employer's dress code with the labor board and lost. The dress code in question required that no jewelry including a small gold cross be worn outside one’s uniform while on duty.

Of course this gets thrown around the press and in some cases, the cross becomes a crucifix. A lot of non-believers or marginal Christian types sometimes do not know the difference. A cross is a cross. A crucifix has the image of a body crucified on it. And in the case of religion, the crucified man is Jesus.

Interesting thing tracing this crucifix thing through the centuries. For the first thousand years of western Christianity, the cross was important but the crucifix was not as visual you might see in a church today. The rich had small metal decorations, covers for prayer books or inch or two long partial relief crucifixes in gold or ivory but they were on books or on relic boxes. The public in general did not see a three dimensional crucifix in any large life size until the Gero Crucifix, made of wood and painted, made its appearance in Cologne in Germany in 970. That crucifix exists to this day (image above). It was the talk of Europe in its day and well worth a pilgrimage to that city.

Along comes the schism between the eastern and western Christian churches in 1040. Both sides excommunicating each other etc. and with that trade from east to west slowed down. After fifty years of no coffee so to speak in the Vatican, the pope jumps up on a soapbox and starts the First Crusade to bypass Constantinople and make some new trade with the middle east. Of course, the emperor of Constantinople had asked for some political aid in the wake of Arab military gains in Turkey as a minor historic footnote.

To make a long story short, I will skip the first three crusades, some successful, some not. Along comes 1202 and the French with a load of knights and no European wars to fight, want to free the Holy Land again or whatever. The bankers in Venice finance the deal and the project lands in Constantinople where they sack the city and take tons of gold, icons and books back to Europe.

I don’t know how the fourth crusade turned out but the City of Constantinople never got over the sack, never fully rebuilt its walls and defenses and two hundred and fifty years later the Muslim armies more or less walked in and took over. All this over a bit of theological schism and bankers greed (Venice) and over whose interpretation of sacred scripture is more real or more genuine.

The eastern icons of Jesus Crucified were quite plentiful after that. First came frescoes and then came more wooden crucifixes and then the carved stone statues of the Renaissance that we think of as standard iconography today.

Along with the imagery of a man tortured on the cross came the mythology or the emphasis of the torture process to build up the Jesus story. Valid? Well when Mel Gibson made his flick the Passion of the Christ, he had the special effects to put the fear of God or of the Roman Empire into each and every one of us. Mission Accomplished.

When seeing the Gabriel Byrne interview previously listed here, I was struck how modern Christianity in its present form has no place for marginal believers. I am struck how Quakers will let you sit in on one of their services if you are agnostic or atheist. The spirit within, the emerging soul is something real and tangible in the mind of some modern men and women. Yet the medieval church and the Prots too cannot grab onto new thoughts, nuances, subtleties to give marginal humanity a place to gather and be in some sort of communion with the message of Jesus, and the ultimate message of God and humanity.

In the case of Gabriel Byrne he seemed to hesitate when push came to shove and reluctantly listed the story of the resurrection of Christ as allegorical. If I had a few minutes with him, I would tell him like a Jewish rabbi that “God rules the world!”. As such God can raise anybody from the dead. Take from that what you will.

With an emphasis to keep using the old standard black and white - A,B,C answers to a “Are you a true believing Christian?" TEST - the institutional Christian church keeps pushing marginal believers, people living in a very real stressful and modern world, away. Life is not a monastery or an ivory tower. The Christian message is more important sometimes than adherence to real or imagined myth.

There is some movie company in Europe with a major budget which is going to make a movie called the Resurrection of Christ. No doubt profit is the motive and Mel leads by example. I cannot help but think about how what separates many modern people and religious people are the iconic images and iconic words of scripture written in the stone age.

I remember how a pastor I was very fond of was disappointed at the end of the 1965 George Stevens movie The Greatest Story Ever Told – he was disappointed that the director did not show Christ rising from the dead. The final scene is a clever cut to a Risen Jesus in a fresco and not in three dimensional being. I have since researched this flick which I think is the best Gospel movie of all time and I found out that Stevens was a very religious man. I can only imagine that he left some doubt in the end of his movie as a means to show the movie to people without or outside faith.

So too, it would be good if people outside the Christian experience, like Muslims, could be exposed to just a little bit of Christian scripture, perhaps they would read more and be in a frame of mind to see how closely Islam is to other monotheistic religions. And vice versa.

I have often thought how Catholics and Muslims should get along better with each other because they both seem to live more for traditions within their religions than by perspective scripture alone. At this point in time neither side does much talking to one another on any broad base with individual people involved outside of clergy.

In any case, the flick about the resurrection will not prove any thing. Faith is a funny thing. You either have it or you don’t. I feel though that a minimal view could open more doors for others to come inside and smell the incense so to speak. Emphasis on icons like a Crucifix or an empty grave does and also does not affect the message of love and universal brotherhood.

Earlier, I was remembering the crucifix of the church where I grew up. The body on the cross was clean shaven, with no beard. When I asked about it as an altar boy, I was told that the founding pastor of my church said that Jesus was not married and therefore was clean shaven as only married Jewish men grew beards. I think Jesus as a revolutionary soul did about anything he wanted to.

A little and a lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing sometimes. History is a strange thing in that with a little knowledge you could end up thinking about strange things like clean shaven Jews and even with a lot of knowledge get fancy notions to stand up on a soapbox and start a bloody crusade.

The mission is the message. The message of Jesus to love one another should be everybody’s mission – whether you are fully Christian or not.