Monday, March 26, 2007

THE FIFTH WEEK IN LENT: THEN WERE WE LIKE THOSE WHO DREAM


The Earth Cross

This is our symbol for the One Earth Lent: a blue green jewel of a planet encircled within the Celtic Cross. The Celts were, and are, the great theologians of nature, praising and celebrating the Christ of the sea, the sky, the earth, the trees, and the animals. All Creation is good, our friend, our teacher, and our food. In one of my favorite stories of the Celtic saints, the Venerable Bede tells how the 7th century monk Cuthbert of Lindisfarne went out to pray all night in the North Sea. He kept vigil in its frigid waters, and when he emerged in the morning, a pair of otters came to him and warmed him with their fur.

Since the Celts were, and are, so earthy, it seemed somehow appropriate to place our Mother Earth in the loving embrace of the Celtic cross. Ours is adorned with love-knots which evoke the roots that connect us beneath the surface and with stylized flowers, or four leafed clovers, which grow above. In such wise, we hope that we, too, will grow in wisdom and in grace during the spring season which leads us toward Easter.

The Celtic Cross is a symbol that weaves together both Christian and pagan symbolism, rather as the holy Celts themselves did. Their Christ was not a ruthless Messiah who banned all others for the sake of the narrow road of doctrine, but a generous, great-souled being who sanctified them. This great inclusion is symbolized by the ring around the cross, the aura, the halo, the circle of blessing. Because a circle has no beginning and no end, it is also a symbol of the eternity of God’s love. The cross represents the axis between heaven and earth, life and death, while the circle is the ring of the divine marriage which vows salvation for all time.

Some have said that this cross is also an adaptation of the Hindu lingam (phallus) and yoni (vagina), and therefore symbolizes the constancy of the two as one who make possible new birth.

Moved by all this, we chose the Cross and the Earth as our symbol.

But good legends and good symbols move in multiple ways, and as I was reading this Sunday’s Gospel at our Divine Liturgy, new shades of meaning began to emerge. The Gospel is short, so here it is in its entirety:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Suddenly, as I read this, the people themselves became symbolic: Mary with her outpouring of nard became as the earth in the spring, freely offering her fragrant, even flagrant, gifts while Judas shrank into something mean and crabbed, that force which seeks, in the name of efficiency, to reduce all goods to the purse. Judas disguised his greed, even as I do, under the rubric of it being for a good cause.

As I stood with Judas, prepared to betray God for thirty pieces of silver, I remembered that silver, gold and riches belong not in heaven, but are the attributes of the death kingdom of Hades. Mysteriously, as I considered Judas' greed and Mary's gift, the symbolism of the Earth Cross began to change. Beauty merged into pain and I saw her hanging on the cross, betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.

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