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"What's The Smoke For" is a page that will explain Catholic Customs, Liturgy, Diversity and Inclusivity, Architecture and Art, Liturgical Furniture and Objects, Liturgical Posture’s and Gestures, Liturgical Praxis, Liturgical Prayers and Devotions, Liturgical Theology, Liturgical Vesture and the Liturgical Year. We hope it will make understanding the Catholic faith easier.

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Dear Johan,

                I saw a young woman with crosses as earrings and at least a dozen rosaries and several pectoral crosses around her neck. I was appalled. It seems to me that the cross is the most important symbol of Christianity. How dare she mock it so?

Gentle Reader-

I must have seen the same woman recently, or else this has become an unhappy trend.

Your question reminds me of a scene that played out many years ago. My younger brother came home from university with a small silver crucifix dangling from his ear. Without saying a word, my mom walked over to him and took it (read: yanked it) out of his ear. To this day I am not sure what displeased my mom the most: the fact that he had his ear pierced or the fact that he wore a cross as an earring.

The cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. However, as is the case with many things we now take for granted, it has not always been thus. It took a while before the cross and especially the crucifix or any other depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints were accepted. Two factors were at play.

First, early Christians displayed a general timidity toward imagery at best and engaged in the occasional full-fledged period of iconoclasm at worst. It was not until the Second Council of Nicea (787) that matters were settled once and for all. After tumultuous debates, this council not only denounced iconoclasm but it also called for the depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints with the admonition that when one adores an image one really adores the one represented by the image.

Second, the death of Jesus on the cross was neither expected by his followers nor was it readily embraced. Death by crucifixion was one of the worst condemnations. Roman citizens, for example, could not be punished by crucifixion. In a sense, the cross was experienced as a scandal and an embarrassment. So they concentrated on the resurrection, rather than on the death of Jesus.

Gradually the Christian community came to embrace the scandal of the cross as the mystery of salvation. And by the early third century the cross had become closely associated with Christianity. Clement of Alexandria (150–ca. 215) referred to the cross as τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον or the Lord’s sign. And according to Tertullian (160–220) Christians are crucis religiosi or devotees of the cross.

Today the cross is ubiquitous and it is undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol in the entire world. We top our church steeples with crosses. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars, and around our necks. We even tattoo crosses on our bodies. Most often this is done in good faith and in good taste. Sometimes it is done in a misguided attempt at unfortunate fashion. In some rare and regrettable instances the cross is intentionally desecrated.

Although I can understand why the sight of the young woman may have given you cause for concern, let’s take consolation in the fact that by the cross we have been saved and nothing can take that away, not even ill-advised use or malicious abuse.

© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, Used by permission.Type your paragraph here.



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