Messages of Hope

The power of symbols

Published / by Sandy

On my travels in Ireland I’ve been fascinated to learn about symbols of the cross in Ireland.

The St Kevin cross from Glendalough is an example of how St Patrick tried to help the once pagan people of Ireland acclimatise to Christianity. This was done by combining the cross with the circle representing the sun, because the pagans worshipped the sun and moon. In time, this particular Celtic Cross was recognised as a Christian symbol. 

St.Brigid was the founder of the first Irish monastery in County Kildare, Ireland. She is credited with creating the unique cross which bears her name. The tale of its creation is somewhat confused, and there is not one definitive version. The tale as we know it is as follows….There was an old pagan Chieftain who lay delirious on his deathbed in Kildare (some believe this was her father) and his servants summoned Brigid to his beside in the hope that the saintly woman may calm his restless spirit. Brigid is said to have sat by his bed, consoling and calming him and it is here that she picked up the rushes from the floor and began weaving them into the distinctive cross pattern. Whilst she weaved, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick Chieftain and it is thought her calming words brought peace to his soul. He was so enamoured by her words that the old Chieftain requested he be baptized as a Christian just before his passing. Since that day, and for the centuries that followed, it has been customary on the eve of her Feast Day (1st February) for the Irish people to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross of straw or rushes and place it inside the house over the door to keep evil, fire and hunger from the homes in which it is displayed.

A few years ago, Pat Baker gave me a necklace with a cross, and on it was a female figure. The female image on the cross was thought of as nothing less than blasphemy when British sculptor Edwina Sandys wrought Christa in 1975. For the artist, it was a recognition that women had suffered and sacrificed their lives for love. Women were among the original martyrs of Christianity, brutally crucified by the Roman Empire.

And then there’s the inverted neon red crosses – four of them, each 20 m tall, that have been erected in Hobart as part of the mid-winter festival known as Dark Mofo.

Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, said provocation was part of Mona’s* DNA and argued that while “the cross is deeply significant in our historical context … symbols don’t have an inherent meaning. The meaning comes from what we bring to them”. He said, “Dark Mofo has been exploring ancient mythology and religious themes since its inception in 2013. The cross is a powerful and deeply significant historical symbol, that has been used for thousands of years, with many cross-cultural meanings”.
(*MONA is Museum of Old and New Art)

Inevitably, predictably, there has been reaction. Outrage is the DNA of social media, and statements like Yvonne McAskill’s resonate with many: “All Christians are shuddering at this diabolical sign”. Clearly there is a lot of support for that point of view.

Interestingly, the original meaning of an upside-down cross was to recall the crucifixion of St Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples. When he was crucified by the Roman Empire at a time when Christians were persecuted, he insisted he be crucified upside-down, because he felt he wasn’t good enough to be crucified the way that Jesus was. So at one point it was a sign of penitence, long before it was adopted as an ‘anti-Christian’ symbol.

Here are three other responses to the Dark Mofo crosses:

Ben Clark writes: ‘The cross itself is an upside down symbol of love over evil. If the message of the cross has been tarnished and turned upside down and used as a weapon for evil then this becomes a profound statement…

Michael Frost writes: The latest outrage-du-jour for Australian Christians is the upside crosses installation in Hobart. For a start, since when do Christians get offended by ART?!?!? We’re followers of the King who converted humiliation into grace. Art is meant to be a provocation, a discussion starter. So let’s have a conversation. Secondly, why all the knee-jerk outrage these days?!?!?

Reverend Matt Garvin of the Citywide Baptist Church, said that while the inverted cross was “commonly thought to be a Satanic symbol”, churches should “engage with the conversation that has been created (in Hobart)”.

It begs the question about what Christians get ‘outraged’ about, and what outraged Jesus – injustice, inequality, war, conflict, denigration, abuse of power and authority, cheating the poor, loss of dignity, loss of community, the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated…

How might churches and individuals engage with conversation in the public square rather than being (stereotypically) reactive?