In recent weeks, on the weekends before and after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, my priest has made a point of noting that Orthodox devotion to the Cross of Christ can jar somewhat for those of us who grew up in western, and more particularly Protestant, contexts. If we were brought up to see the Cross as the punishment meted out on Christ by the Father for our sins, then we may have an instinctive aversion to the Cross, seeing it as something terrible and offensive and hardly as something to be venerated.

His words reminded me of the Bible I had as a child and at the revulsion that I had felt at the image of the crucifixion that was in it. I did everything I could to avoid looking at it, for it was a depressing, dark painting, totally devoid of hope. As a child I felt rather guilty that I always turned the pages on it as quickly as possible, but it was an image of dread and certainly not one that spoke to me of a loving God.

Now, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and I have discovered that what was then presented to me as the Gospel was rather a distorted version of it. And I have discovered that it is not for nothing that we refer to the Feast of the Cross as the “Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.”

But I was reminded of that picture again yesterday. I have been restoring a Dutch Statenbijbel which was the official Dutch Calvinist translation. I’m really enjoying the work although it is a huge and heavy book. I discovered that part of the reason it is so thick is that it has fairly substantial Psalms, hymns, prayers and a catechism at the back. And, glancing at the catechism and hymns, I was reminded of what a miserable and depressing vision such a theological context portrays of the human person.

That in itself was nothing new, although it is something I try not to focus on. But yesterday I came across a picture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is placed opposite the beginning of Genesis. That this is the image chosen to mark the beginning of the Bible could perhaps be seen as making a theological statement – and no doubt the likes of Matthew Fox would have something to say about its prioritising of sin and redemption over the goodness of creation, but I do not really want to give credence to such simplistic polarities. And I suspect that the differences go deeper than simply the acceptance or rejection of certain imagery, but lie rather in the understanding of such images.

Indeed, I have become increasingly aware in recent months just how central the imagery of the loss of Paradise and of our identification with the fall of Adam and Eve is in Orthodox theology. Indeed, the more I read the liturgical texts of the Church, the more central this seems to become. But the point of such texts is not to remind us of our hopeless situation and to foster gloom and doom. It is rather that God goes in search of fallen Adam, that Adam (i.e. all humanity) is made new again in Christ who Himself descends into hell to conquer death.

In this context, then, the Cross of Christ is not about God meting out death but it is about God in Christ destroying death and the power of death in order to bring life. On the Cross, God “hast raised up Adam and the whole of fallen nature” (Small Vespers for the Feast). This is why we venerate the Cross, not as a symbol of torture or punishment, but as a symbol of victory.

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