The Cross is an exceptional sign. In Israel, among the Jews, it rebukes, and often cannot be accepted. It was harsh some decades ago. For some, it is universal, prior to any faith in the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth would undoubtedly be surprised – just like the apostles – at the use that certain traditions have developed of a pagan instrument of torture. The Greek “stavros/σταυρóς” does not really refer to a “cross”. It is more of a “stake” to which the victim was tied. The word comes from the verb “ἵστημι” which means “I place something straight, I mark a stop”.
The Holy Sepulcher is on a bare hill, located outside of official Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. It is this “Place of Resurrection – Anastasis/ἀνάστασις in Greek” – for the Orthodox and the many Catholic traditions. The Protestants consider that they found the Tomb at the Tomb Garden, close to Damascus Gate.
The tomb is empty. It sounds evident. Not always! I have often been asked by visitors, pilgrims coming from far parts of the world: “Could you open the grave for me?” Naive? Just a bit tired from a long trip, the mental and spiritual journey. There remains “faith”, without any visible, tactile sign. It deals with much more, far beyond any intimate conviction. This certainty of the resurrection of the Master and Lord has slowly been formulated over the years, decades, and centuries. It was definitely not evident for the first “congregants and followers of a new Jewish-born Master”.
The Cross has become the sign par excellence of Christianity and it spread all over the world. We find all shapes of them, the Ethiopian “solar” crosses, and the simple wood of the Latins. The Russian Orthodox Cross gives an “almost historical image of Salvation” according to the Slavic tradition: three panels on a vertical piece of wood: at the top, the quality, identity, and title of “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, in Roman (sic, = Latin)) and in Greek (John 19,19).
Note the order of the languages because phyletism/nationalism was instilled even in the order of the words well specified by the evangelist). The Cross at the Golgotha in Jerusalem is kept by the Greek Orthodox and the order of the languages has been changed: Greek, then Latin, and Hebrew. the bottom to the top, well, it does not change anything though! Finally, “to hold the feet”, a piece of wood goes up to the right and down to the left because History continues to unfold. The Christians expect the Second Coming of Christ in glory. According to the faith of the numerous jurisdictions, churches, and groups, He will judge the living and the dead. Thus, He will tell the blessed to come to His right ( subsequently of the Father’s), and the others to His left…
In Jerusalem, it is common for Arab and Armenian Christian faithful to wear a cross as a sign of denominational affiliation and affirmation of their faith which is also their identity as human beings. Among the Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrians, it is customary to tattoo a cross on the hand or on the forehead… Today, Ethiopians of different backgrounds wear skullcaps on their head while printed Abyssinian crosses have been tattoed on their foreheads.
Is it so amazing? “In Hoc signo vinces”, or rather “En Touto Nika/ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” “by this [this – this sign you will get] victory”. These are the words that accompanied Constantine on October 28, 312, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He had the celestial vision of the Greek CHI (X) and RHO (P) (= Christos, Messiah). In fact, Constantine (who was not baptized then) was convinced that Jesus offered him much more than victory but salvation by faith. A sign of power? It is much more: the question was not “power”, but the mark of penance. At all Orthodox offices, we venerate the Holy Cross discovered by Saint Helena in the bowels of the Holy Sepulcher. Long before, the Georgian Saint Nino had seized a vine stock to show that the sign of Christ is like and good and wide mark of goodness and redemption, that should be expressed by the fruitfulness of the Church.
God has always granted signs to human beings, “protective hooks”, like the one requested by the murderer Cain whom God decided to save by sealing the mark of a hook (a cross) as a safeguarding sign of forgiveness equal to 7 times 77 times (Genesis 4: 24). It can be compared to the mark “vehitvita tav/והתוית תו = inscribes a ‘tav, a cross’ on the foreheads” prescribed to the prophet in Ezekiel 9,4. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the tav/tau – ת\ܬ is the last letter of the Semitic alphabet. It has the shape of a simple cross /x+/. It defines an accomplishment (tam/תם). It was initially drawn in the shape of a simple cross. Like the Tau used by Saint Francis when he blessed Brother Léon. In the Semitic languages, the TAV-TAU” does not mark the end of all things. Indeed, the tav\תו (completion) goes back to the alef\אלף (beginning) as the Gospel phrase says “Marana tha = Master, come! or Maran atha, the Lord is coming!” (Revelation ch. 22)
The CHI \ Χ-χ and the RHO \ Ρ-ρ have become the emblematic chrism of Christianity. Many years ago, at Mount Sion, the Dominican Bargil Pixner discovered on a wall a similar sign but in Hebrew letters. Is it surprising? Eric Werner, the Jewish-American musicologist, had shown in his remarkable work, “The Sacred Bridge” (New York 1951) how the diacritics of Hebrew music and intonation used in the Temple of Jerusalem had been transposed from right to left and left to right in Byzantine, Syriac and Western church traditions. The CHI corresponds to the Hebrew letter Chet\ח while the kouf/ק and shows how the Semitic script has been reversed in Greek to the right!
It does not come right out of the Blue Moon! One of the oldest and still daily Jewish prayers is: “Blessed are You… Living God (chai/חי ) and source of life (qayam/קים )” whose initial letters correspond to the CHI RHO of our faithful Christian in life, that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There was also the Sign of the Cross over the Old City of Jerusalem. This year, crosses are cut down, crushed, and desecrated by wars in Ukraine as also in the Middle East, and in Asia, on all continents. Everywhere in the world, the sign is present, venerated, or defiled, disregarded, and destroyed.
The Cross does not belong to anyone. We do not choose ourselves in the Church, nor in any “congregation”. We are given to each other by some Providence or… This takes on a tragic significance in the parishes of Ukraine, of the very vast Russia, of Byelorussia-Belarus. It turns now to some absence of recognition of how we were put together, sharing a common destiny. The breath of Holiness earnestly pleads that the beauty of discernment, humanity, and divinity covers us and enables us to show decency towards those who are offered to us by common faith or otherwise.
Cain received this sign on his forehead in the shape of a hook, sort of a cross or plus because he feared that humans would assassinate him as a murderer. He supplicated God to protect him. He did not protect nor guard his brother, but he could be assassinated by other people. It is strange because nobody is linked, to begin with, with the very small Adam and Eve initial family. The sign of the Messiah is a breath of the Spirit. It is – should be – the real, irreducible call not only to protection but to welcome everyone. Quite often it may switch to confusion, persecution, and killing of those who are born to witness to life only.
Metropolitan Onufryi, the Orthodox Head of the Church in Ukraine (Moscow patriarchate) has vehemently protested against the fratricide crime of Cain that is perpetrated nowadays in Ukraine. It breaches the possible coherence and confidence of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in territories where so many religious communities are living more or less together. Yes, we are drowning these days in the “crime of Cain”. The State of Israel works hard to see how to welcome the refugees – often mixed couples – that interrogate the Halachah and the principle of Rav Avraham Israel HaKohen Kook who wanted to welcome all. There is only one Assembly, the Great assembled of the Exiled who may be brought back to Israel according to specific conditions.
Cain received this sign of the hook/cross on his forehead because he feared that humans would assassinate him as a murderer. We see these days how humankind may dive in crimes as Cain and we are his descent. We can switch it to signs of repair and mutual respect.
I append here the photo of the CHET and QOF that is essential in the Jewish prayer, as the Lord is alive and Life-giving.