Fr. Armando Elkhoury
The cross is a heinous instrument of execution. Why, then, do Maronites and other Christians venerate it? The cross adorns our necks, for example, and we hang it in our homes, churches, workplaces, etc. At various liturgies, we adore the cross by kissing and bowing to it. We refer to it as the cross of splendor, the cross of wonder, and the cross of glory, and the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Glorious Cross each year, on September 14.
The cross, in and of itself, depicts total defeat and horrendous death. Paradoxically, the cross of Jesus Christ symbolizes victory and life. Why? Precisely because of who Jesus the Nazarene is: he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Crucified One. Hence, in the light of Jesus Christ, let us explore a couple of theological themes about the cross found in the Maronite Book of Offering—henceforth BO.
1. Life-Giving Tree of Life
God created Adam and Eve and made the Garden of Eden their home. Since they transgressed God’s commandment, God expelled them from it. Therefore, the Garden of Eden became inaccessible to them and their descendants (See Gn 2-3).
In Maronite theology, the return to the Garden of Eden represents salvation. With his cross, Jesus Christ saved and raised us “to heaven’s heights from this world of sin and death to the joys of paradise” (BO, 658). So, the cross is an instrument of salvation, and the Lord uses it as a key to open the gates of paradise, namely, the Garden of Eden, and bring humanity back to it: “Your cross, O Lord, is the key to paradise and unlocks its gates for us” (BO, 612). Once the cross opens the gate to the Garden of Eden, humanity has, as stated above, unrestricted access to “the joys of paradise” (BO, 658). The expression “joys of paradise” refers to the delightful fruit of the Tree of Life.
When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden, he stationed “the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the Garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gn 3:24). Since the cross opened wide the gate of the Garden of Eden, the cherubim left the Tree of Life unattended and returned to his angelic company. Consequently, mankind can now tread on the way that leads them to the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life in the Old Testament symbolizes the cross in Maronite theology: “O Holy Cross, Tree of Life, you were planted in the Garden of Eden and have become the wood of salvation for all those on earth” (BO, 620). The connection between the tree of life and the cross is so strong that Maronite theology teaches that the actual cross of the Lord “was taken from the tree of Eden” (BO, 606).
As the Tree of Life, the cross bears life-giving fruit that grants life to those who eat it. Our mother Eve ate from the fruit leading to death (See Gn 3:1-7). We, however, pluck and eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, the life-giving cross, and live (See BO, 641).
2. Source of the Church’s Glorious Mysteries
In Maronite liturgical theology, the cross, as the Tree of Life, is the source of the glorious Mysteries of the Church. The cross bears the Church’s “glorious Mysteries” (BO, 661) and gives “salvation to the world” (BO, 661). This image derives its significance from the water and blood that flowed from the side of Jesus Christ as the soldier pierced his side with a lance (See Jn 19:34)
Just as water and blood gushed from the side of Jesus, so heavenly gifts flow from the victorious cross of Jesus (See BO, 621). The heavenly gifts refer to the mysteries of the Church: “Wood of the Cross, you bear the Mysteries of our divine Redeemer. O Holy Cross, with your sign all the Mysteries of the Church are made perfect” (BO, 640)! The Mysteries of the Church denote Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, the oils of Chrismation and Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Penance: “By the cross priests are ordained for the Church of Jesus Christ. By the cross they have the power to give us the Mysteries. By the cross we are baptized and are cleansed of all our sins. By the cross the oils are blessed that we may be sanctified” (BO, 618). The Church also proclaims: “Glory to you, O Christ our God, you are the true vine and, in your great indescribable love, you were pressed upon the cross, producing new wine which quenches the thirst of the Church and all people” (BO, 181). The cross is the instrument by which the new wine is produced; this new wine refers to the Eucharist (See Jn 19:34).
The most important thing to take away from this article is that the cross is synonymous with Christ: “O Holy Cross, Arm of the Almighty, you were sent to protect his people” (BO, 630)! In this quote, the expression “Holy Cross” denotes the Son, whom the Father sent into the world “because of his love for us” (BO, 777). When we bow down to the cross and kiss it, we are bowing down to and kissing the One it truly represents, namely, Jesus Christ our Lord and God. When we elevate the cross to such a high honor, we do not exalt a piece of wood or metal and turn it into an idol, not even if it were the true and actual cross. Far be it! We, however, honor, venerate, adore, and worship the Son of God, whom the cross symbolizes.
Finally, the Maronite Church venerates the One whom the cross represents, that is, Jesus Christ, the Son of God because he is the life-giving Tree of Life and the source of the Church’s Glorious Mysteries. The cross draws its meaning from Jesus Christ who defeated death and rose victoriously. Why do we, Maronites, along with other Christians, venerate the cross? Because the cross means Jesus Christ who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13), and everything in between!