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The Cross in the Early Church

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The following is based on the Spanish text of B. M. Aherns’ article on the Cross in the Nueva Diccionario de Espiritualidad, pp. 311 col. 1 – 312 col. 21. The article comes from a time when the status of the Passion Narratives as the earliest layer of Christian proclamation has not yet been established. Since the 1970s when the article first came out, there has been quite a lot of work done in the area of the gospels not covered in this article. However, it is still worth studying because of the interesting insights the author has to offer on the way the mystery of the cross of Christ was appropriated by the Church. The principal apostolic layers covered here are those of the main Pauline Letters, the Letter to the Hebrews and 1 Peter, dealing on two main topics: the Cross in the mystery of salvation, and the Cross in the life of Christians. Under this second theme, the author discusses Jesus’ sayings on the cross of discipleship and offers an interesting interpretation of: “Whosoever wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself carry his cross and follow me.” Also interesting is the discussion on the way 1 Peter and the Letter to the Hebrews offer the Christian nuance for “perfection”.

The Primitive Christian Kerygma

The most primitive layer of the Christian kerygma shows that the apostles had to respond to the hostile objections raised against accepting the resurrected Jesus as Messiah. Adversaries based their attacks on the fact that he died ignominously on the cross, condemned and rejected by official Judaism. To answer this criticism, the apostles came up with an apology for the death of Jesus and explained that it was provoked by the evil of men and was preordained by the same God and was announced through the prophets of the Old Testament (Heb. 2:23, 3:13ff.18, 13:27ff). They used principally the prophecies of Isaiah about the suffering servant of Yahweh (Heb. 3:13.26; 4:27.30; cf. Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12) and the psalms which were interpreted prophetically (Heb. 4:11, cf. Psallm 118, 22; Heb. 4:25ff, cf. Psalm 2:1ff)

The Cross of Christ in the Letters of Paul

The letters of St. Paul testify that the first christians readily discovered great and positive wealth in the mystery of the death of Jesus. They considered it as having the characteristics of a perfect sacrifice, able to forgive sin and to establish a new covenanted relationship with God (Rom. 3:24; 4:25-5:2; 1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor. 5:19; Ef. 5:1). Given that Jesus died in obedience to the will of the Father (Rom. 5:19; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 10:4ff), his cross was accepted as an eminent symbol of the love of God (Rom. 5:6ff; 8:32ff) and as an effective instrument of Divine wisdom and power in the work of reconciling man with God (1 Cor. 1:18ff; Col. 1:19ff).

These profound insights of faith is reflected in the New Testament vocabulary which employs words like “cross” “wood” “death” “blood” in archetypal sense. Even if these words refer to material elements and real experiences in the life of Jesus, they are illuminated by the light of the salvific and perfect action of God the fullness of which will be manifested in the messianic glory of the resurrection.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews develop the Church’s understanding of what the cross signified about the humanity of Jesus and what it meant for the establishment of a new covenant (Heb. 8:6 – 9:15). He shows that the fully human suffering borne by Jesus made him into a high priest full of compassion and that his death on the cross was a total priestly sacrifice enduring for all time so as to purify men of sin and to unite them to God (Heb. 2:10; 4:14ff; 5:7ff; 10:1-18).

The Cross in the Life of the Christian

Just as the death of Jesus on the cross owes its proper meaning and its salvific power to the love with which Jesus faithfully accomplished the mission which the Father entrusted to him, so the New Testament also underscores the devotion and fidelity to God which the efficaciousness and example of Jesus’ death should produce in the christian. The inspired writings far from teaching a masochistic doctrine and interest, clearly affirm that all forms of following — whether sacramental or ethical — in the sufferings of Christ necessarily includes the power of the resurrection, which gives life, light and strength ordered to an intimate union with God and to an active cooperation in his salvific work in the world (Phil 3:10ff; 2 Cor. 1:5ff)

Gospel Statements About Carrying One’s Cross
(Mk. 8:34; Mt. 10:38; 16:24; Luke 9:23; 14:27)

It is doubtful that the words of Jesus about the cross of the disciple refers figuratively to the wooden cross of the Roman capital punishment, since this has not been used as a literary symbol of human suffering. In the light of the context of Mark 8:34, and keeping in mind that the predictions in Mark about the passion do not contain the crucifixion, it appears probable that this rhetorical figure refers more to the yoke of Christ exalted in Matthew 11:29 or to the accompanying sacrifices required from those who wish to follow Jesus. Also, it is possible that this rhetorical figure is based on the hebrew practise of marking a person with the sign of the cross (+ or x the ancient form of the Hebrew letter “tau”) as a sign of repentance and a spiritual mark that consecrates a man to God (Ezek. 9:4, Psalms of Solomon 15:66). On this account, the statement can originally have had this meaning: “All those who have not marked themselves with the + (or who have not repented and have not dedicated themselves fully to God) cannot be my disciple”. This statement, united to the subsequent ecclesial understandng of the mystery of the cross of Christ became a symbol of christian discipleship and brought about the practise of marking oneself on the forehead with the cross in penitential and baptismal ceremonies.

The Teaching of Paul

This apostle can be considered the theologian of the presence of the cross of Christ in the Christian life. He does not limit himself to teaching about the power of the cross to liberate men from sin and from egotism, from death and the terrenal old testamentarian attachments, but also teaches that through “the blood of the cross” the new covenant has been established in which men live united with God and in the charity of one for the others (Eph. 2:13-22). For this reason, says St. Paul, all Christians should live as those who in baptism have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:19ff; 5:24; Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11ff). This signifies that for the Christian, in order to participate in the love and obedience of Christ on the cross, he ought to constantly die to sin and to egotism which impede the love for God and for men as well as the joy and peace which should radiate from the ressurected life of the Lord (col. 3:2ff)

Letter to the Hebrews and 1 Peter

The Letter to the Hebrews and 1 Peter, written in difficult moments of temptation and perseccution, introduce the new theme according to which christianity requires the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ so as to imitate its spirit of fidelity, of love and to acquire the strength to follow his example (Heb. 12:2ff; 1 Peter 2:21ff). These writings are fundamental because of the accent they put on the example of the cross, a theme that will become dominant in medieval spirituality and following periods.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews deepens significantly the theology of the cross in the christian life. He makes an intimate link between “perfection” and christian maturity (expressed through the greek word teleios) with the fact of Jesus being made the “perfecter”, that is, when he has become high priest through the human suffering of his passion and the glorious exaltation of his resurrection (Heb. 2:10, 5:9, 10:14, 12:23). With this verbal correlation he teaches that the perfection of the priestly people depends on the way by which it makes itw own the spirit of love and obedience with with Jesus the man was made perfect in the passion and the cross.


B. M. Aherns “Cruz” en el Nuevo Dicionario de Espiritualidad (Ed. Paulinas:1983), 310-317

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