The Staurogram and Ancient Christian Reverence for the Cross

StaurogramThe current logo  for this site is called a staurogram, and it is evidence of ancient Christian reverence for the cross of Christ. When I first saw it, I thought it was simply a tilted version of the popular Chi-Rho symbol, but in the words of David S. Pumpkins, it is “its own thing.”

Larry Hurtado, professor of New Testament, Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has written extensively about the use of the staurogram in ancient Christian texts. You will find the symbol in many of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament where the noun “cross” (σταυρός [stauros] in Greek) or the verb “crucify” ought to appear.

It was a common practice for scribes to use a kind of shorthand in ancient texts to write sacred names (nomina sacra). Commonly, the shorthand consisted of two or three letters of the name with a line drawn over the letters. The practice wasn’t primarily about saving the scribe time and effort. Rather, it indicated the scribe’s reverence for the name being written.

The staurogram is a pictograph that served the same function.  The symbol (⳨) combines two Greek letters, tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ), but the letters don’t stand for anything. Instead, it is the resulting picture that matters. The staurogram is a kind of stick-figure drawing, visually representing a person hanging on a cross. The closed loop at the top is the person’s head.

For the scribes, then, the cross is not just an object but an act. When they envision the cross, they picture Jesus on it. The word receives reverential treatment because of the sacred place Jesus’ self-offering had in early Christianity. The staurogram is a scribal form of bending the knee before the one who gave himself for us.

Did the Men Cook?

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Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. Luke 22:7-13

Sometime back I was sitting in the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville when my mind wandered off the chapel activities to the carving behind the altar. It is a representation of Jesus’ last supper before his crucifixion, a copy of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting.

Luke says that the “apostles” – the sent ones – reclined at the table with Jesus, a group Luke identifies with the twelve. In renaissance style, DaVinci’s apostles sit with Jesus; they don’t recline. Still, it’s just the twelve and Jesus – all men. And the question came to my mind, “Who cooked the dinner?”

Did Luke intend to say that Peter and John cooked the meal when he said, “they prepared the Passover?” Were there others, perhaps some women included, behind the scenes who prepared the actual meal?

It’s amusing to think of the great apostles of the church standing beside the oven baking bread, washing vegetables and roasting lamb. Maybe Peter washed the dishes and John set the table. We should not think it beneath the dignity of the princes of the church to do the work of  servants. Even an apostle can put on an apron and get to work. The disciples may not wash feet in the synoptic gospels as they do in the Gospel of John, but Jesus still calls them to the ordinary task of setting the table.

Whoever performed these mundane functions, the supper had to be prepared before the table could be shared.

Does not the apostolic church still set the table for Jesus, so that he can offer himself anew to every new generation of believers?

 

Why the Stone Was Rolled Away

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:2-6)

Matthew’s gospel gives us perhaps the most dramatic version of the empty tomb story. There’s an earthquake. There’s an angel whose appearance was like lightning. The angel rolls the stone away. The guards become so terrified that they fall to the ground. There is, however, one obvious element missing from Matthew’s account.

In the mid-second century, the author of the apocryphal, so-called “Gospel of Peter” wanted to fill in the missing piece of the story.

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them.

In the so-called Gospel of Peter, the stone rolled itself away so that Jesus (and his cross!) could get out. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel (or messenger) rolled the stone away so that the women could look in.

Matthew draws us a dramatic picture of the tomb on Easter morning, but he never tells us about Jesus emerging from the tomb. The stone is rolled away from an empty sepulcher. The grave could not hold the savior. Rather, the angel rolls the stone away from the entrance of the tomb so that the women could see evidence of the angel’s proclamation:

He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

Chrysostom’s Invitation to Embrace Jesus

And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word. And behold, Jesus met them, saying, “All hail.” And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:8-9

Some among you may desire to be like these faithful women. You too may wish to take hold of the feet of Jesus. You can, even now. You can embrace not only his feet but also his hands and even his sacred head. You too can today receive these awesome mysteries with a pure conscience. You can embrace him not only in this life but also even more fully on that day when you shall see him coming with unspeakable glory, with a multitude of the angels. If you are so disposed, along with him, to be compassionate, you shall hear not only these words, “All hail!” but also those others: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.”

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew

Of Palm Branches and Crosses

On Palm Sunday (2017), Christians in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria joined their brothers and sisters across the globe to raise palm branches in honor of Jesus the King.  And just as it did two thousand years ago, the proclamation of Jesus’ reign produced a violent reaction. Bombers killed dozens and injured scores more. In a way, the story of holy week replayed itself in gruesome detail. The praise of the faithful precipitated a murderous rage among those who would not or could not accept Jesus as their king.

Never believe that worshiping Jesus is always a safe, harmless way to spend a morning. There was a direct connection between the palms of praise and the cross of crucifixion. This was true for Jesus, and it is true for us as well.

Proclaiming Jesus as king can lead to death for his loyal subjects, just as it did for king Jesus himself two thousand years ago. And if that seems like a remote possibility in your corner of the world, remember that many of your brothers and sisters in Christ are reliving the terrors of Christ’s passion in their daily lives.

The suffering church, the martyr church, is not “them”; it is “us”. The whole church is wounded when any part of the church is attacked. There is only one church of Jesus Christ, to which all Christians belong. Every Christian should feel the sting of the shrapnel that tore the flesh of our brothers and sisters in Egypt.