It is a detail I think many people miss, but have you noticed that the four stone crosses that top each gable of our church are uniquely different? I had noticed, but when I recently climbed the scaffolding of the new Parish Centre, I was able to photograph them. It left me wondering why those 18th century builders decided to choose a different cross for each high point of our beautiful church. Perhaps we will never truly know.
The Orthodox Cross appears above the front door. This is a style of cross portrayed by Churches of the Orthodox East, which has two and often three cross bars. All crosses, of course, have the cross bar to which Jesus' hands were nailed. Orthodox crosses often add the small crossbar above representing the sign Pilate placed on the Cross, and sometimes also or instead, another below to represent the support for Jesus' feet. Often this lower cross bar is sloped down to the left, and thus up to the right. This represents Jesus' two journeys of descent into hell and ascent into heaven.
The form we see in our cross was adopted in Byzantium, and later by the Russian Orthodox Church and especially popularised in the East Slavic countries.
The cross above the nave altar, the most central on our roof, appears to be a St Thomas' Cross. The arms of the cross have 'shoots' coming out, representing the tree of life with new life growing out from its branches. It is a very ancient style of cross used by the 'Mar Toma' or Saint Thomas Christians, often also known as Syrian Christians or Nasrani. They are centred in Kerala, in India, following the tradition that they were founded by Jesus' disciple Thomas whose apostolic mission took him to India.
At the end of the roof above the High Altar is a Celtic Cross. The Celtic cross features a nimbus or ring around the central point of the cross. It emerged in Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages. A nimbus represents a cloud, ring or halo, which in the art of ancient mythologies surrounded the presence or the head of a sacred being. So it is that placing it centrally on a Christian cross represents the divinity of the one who hung upon it.
This style of ringed cross became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the Celtic British islands, especially in regions evangelised by Irish missionaries, from the 9th through the 12th centuries.
The fourth cross, and the only one not mounted in a line running centrally from east to west, is above the Choir Vestry, facing north. It appears to be a Lazarus Cross. At the end of each arm is a trefoil, so this style of cross is sometimes called a 'trefly cross'. Originally a trefoil was a three leaved European pea plant, but in sculpture indicates a three leaved end to an extremity. The use of three rounded or pointed leaves on crosses is a Trinitarian symbol, representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The name Lazarus Cross comes from the time of the Crusades, when it was combined with a green Maltese cross, to form the insignia of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus. This order began in the 12th century establishing hospitals for lepers in Jerusalem, and later becoming an order of knights fighting for the Church in the Crusades. After the loss of the Crusades, the Order settled in Italy and France, and still exists today.
So our crosses represent the churches of Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East, India, Jerusalem, Italy, France, Britain and Ireland. The thing that immediately strikes me is that Jesus commanded the Apostles “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) The origin of each cross shows how they obeyed that command. As they took the Word they proclaimed in every direction they travelled out into all the world. Each of the countries mentioned spread out like a great arc around the world – the known world of Jesus' time anyway.
So our crosses sit up there and proclaim Jesus who came for all people in all places around our globe. All should feel welcome here to hear his word and see his love expressed by us, his children. Look up, and let the message carved from stone by those Victorian era stonemasons speak to you and encourage you to take up the task our Lord gave us.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)