This Life-Giving, Holy and Terrible Sign

Perhaps the greatest gift that poets and artists give to us is the ability to see familiar things in new ways.

In so doing they give us the gift of newness and freshness, they restore to us the vitality of our familiar possessions.

The description “this life-giving, holy and terrible sign” had such an effect on me.

The writer, Joceline of Furness, a 12th century monk, used this phrase to describe the Crosses erected by Saint Kentigern everywhere he took the gospel to people.

Life-Giving :
There is a paradox in that this Roman instrument of torture and execution has been turned around by God and now becomes a source of life and healing. Doesn’t that just sum up the Christian faith!

Holy :
The cross is the instrument by which God both showed us the awful enormity of our sin and also dealt with it, once and for all. After the cross event there is only one kind of sin in the world – forgiven sin. We just need to receive this forgiveness which is freely offered to all who will take it. We take off our shoes and fall on our faces, this is sacred ground.

Terrible :
This is used in its arcane meaning indicating that which inspires awe, which is of great seriousness or extreme.

As I read on, it was interesting to read why Saint Kentigern erected these crosses.

“…so the enemies of the human race, the powers of darkness of this world, melting away in terror before this sign, might disappear and in terror and confusion might be banished far away.”

The first reason is that of spiritual warfare. Christ’s victory is the only victory the Church has, or needs. It is only in presenting the reality of this victory to the dark powers that we defeat them.

“…that the soldiers of the Eternal King, recognizing by a glance the unconquerable standard of their Chief, should fly to it, as to a tower of strength, from the face of the enemy”

The cross is a rallying point, the reminder of our unshakeable victory, already won by Christ. The battles we find ourselves in might be fierce, but the outcome of the war is never in doubt.

“…that they should have before their eyes that which they adore and in which they glory”

The cross symbolises all that is central in the Christian faith; all that is precious to the faithful.

“…as … the wrestling against spiritual wickedness in high places, and against the fiery darts of the evil one, is continual, it is meet that they should fortify and protect themselves by signing themselves with this sign”

Looking to the cross, signing oneself with it, have been basic elements of Christian spirituality since its first days. They are weapons in our warfare.

“…and by imitating the Passion of Christ … they should, for the love of the Crucified One, crucify the flesh with its vices and lusts, and the world to them, and themselves unto the world.”

The cross also sums up the calling of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer famously wrote,

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The calling and duty of the followers of Christ is to respond to their Lord’s crucifixion with their own. We are called to kill in us all that is unworthy or opposed to the life of God in its radical holiness.

As Constantine was told in a vision, “In hoc signo vinces” – In this sign you will conquer.