This is the cross that starts off the calendar year - the Snowflake Cross. This cross reminds me of the poem from T.S. Eliot - "In the end, is my beginning...the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." We think of January as the beginning of the year, but if we were to think of the season it is in - winter - we would be reminded that winter is when we experience the deadness, the slumbering of things. The deafening stillness, the blanketing quietness. In literary terms, winter is the season of the absolute end, of the turning to stone. But in spiritual terms, that's the exact place we need to be in order to experience rebirth.
In January, the thick blanketing of snow (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) begins the slow awakening. The snow sits upon the earth, and is a season of forced rest. The snow sinks, slowly, snowflake by snowflake, into the earth and gradually, slowly, softly seeps over several months down into the heart of things, until it touches the seeds laying dormant in the ground and gives them, with the warmth of the sun, the spark of life.
I can't help but think of the Eucharist when I see a snowflake. They are so similar - both small and white. Each one is completely unique and never repeated, while at the same time it is always a snowflake or the Body of Christ. Like a snowflake, the Eucharist seeps softly and slowly down into the heart of the receiver. We may not notice much difference with the first few receptions, but what about a lifetime of communions, like billions of snowflake? There lies the difference - like a few snowflake flurries versus a three foot blanket of snow, it becomes impossible to escape. And in the snowfall - the feeling of stillness, of peace, of presence, so also in the Eucharist, but only to those who will will stop, listen and wonder.
With its big gold heart and red rhinestones, this cross is linked to St. Valentine's Day. But more than an occasion to tell those we love how we feel, St. Valentines Day and this cross remind us to go a little deeper. It is so appropriate to contemplate Love at this time of year. The season of Lent often begins during the month of February, so the red hearts and expressions of love seen around St. Valentine's Day can also act as a type of preparation for Lent.
In fact, the 3 pillars of Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving - could also be called the 3 Pillars of Love. Prayer unites us to Love, aka God. If God is present, then Love is present. We have to remember that being kind and loving are not merely attributes or things that God does, but that Love is who and what God is. If Love is present, God is present. To abide in love is to abide in God. (1 John 4:8) To abide means to follow, to be a disciple. There is simply no way to abide in love without prayer, which puts us in close and constant contact with Love. Abiding in love is beyond our ability without prayer.
Fasting, the 2nd pillar, is a result of prayer. Although fasting is typically associated with refraining from food or drink, a deeper understanding of fasting is that it is a position of self-restraint, self-discipline. Fasting can be practiced with the body, in eating only certain foods or not eating, but it also calls us to the deeper level of spiritual and emotional fasting. Fasting physically prepares us to fast in other ways, such as from behaviors and emotions that destroy and are not life-giving. It calls us away from self-worship through inviting us to refrain. When we can fast, we can also see the needs of others. We become other-focused, one of the traits of true love.
The 3rd pillar, almsgiving, calls us to remember that all we have is a gift. Love calls us to use our gifts in the service of others, especially in material goods. We learn to distinguish between needs and wants, and to remember those who are vulnerable.
This cross reminds us that True Love is healing, life-giving, self-giving and other-focused. It's certainly a challenge for us to give or even abide in this type of Love, but the 3 pillars of Lent can be a roadmap to find it and St. Valentine's Day can remind us to realign ourselves with True Love.
In the month of March, our thoughts turn naturally to St. Patrick's Day, not just because of the saint's feast day on March 17, but also because the earth is slowly waking up again and signs of life are returning. Signs of greenness and earth always conjure up images of growth, of green things, of soft spring breezes. The harshness of winter is behind us and we can look toward the return of kinder days.
There is also particular energy that arrives with Spring, and which is very much a part of the Celtic spirit. If one of the signs of our postmodern, postcolonial culture, is exhaustion - of running faster and faster but never catching up, then the Celtic cross offers a solution. It depicts a vibrant energy moving joyfully around an inner core.
As Fr. Fitzgerald points out in his book 7 Secrets of the Celtic Spirit (Ave Maria Press, 2001), only in Celtic lands do we find the cross encircled with the image of a spirited circle "dancing around a holy cross." This symbol visually represented the early Celts' understanding of the Christ. When they became aware of Jesus, they "understood him as a great energetic hero on a grand adventure, whose presence was not static but dynamic and active everywhere." They displayed this on crosses, the symbol of Christ's great victory over death, with Jesus at the center and the circle of energy all around. From Christ at the center of it all - of creation, of the earth, of the year, of our lives - all of being ripples forth. Our response to this understanding is to respond in joy, to dance around the core, around the Christ who can heal, save and enliven. (7 Secrets, page 140)
It was in this understanding that St. Patrick composed his great prayer we call "St. Patrick's Breastplate," in which he proclaims:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I arise
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me.
The cross necklace above has a special meaning to me. I was visiting Scotland, and after a wonderful visit to that wild and wooly land, I was looking for a simple momento to take home with me. I found this cross on a stand in a little shop in Old Town, Edinburgh. I had ducked into the shop to get out of the latest round of rain, and came across it quite suddenly. I knew that was it, my momento, as soon as I saw it. The cross itself is in the shape of a Celtic cross, but the circular moving lines around it reminded me of the strong winds racing across the moor, and the "dynamic and active" energy of Christ. This dynamic energy is evident in nature, as well as the Scots themselves. It wasn't until I left the store that I glanced at the purple pouch the necklace came in. I had to smile - the cross is made by Trinity & Co, Scottish Jewelers. How perfect.
April: The Dove Cross
This cross is a clever solution to the fact that Easter moves around each year. Some years Easter falls in March, other years it's in April, according to the Western Gregorian calendar. If you are using the Eastern calendar, Easter might even fall in May! If you've ever wondered why, here's a short answer from www.farmersalmanac.com:
"Easter and the many church holidays related to it — such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday — are called “moveable feasts,” because they do not fall on a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar, which follows the cycle of the sun and the seasons. Instead, these days follow a lunisolar calendar, similar to Jewish holidays. According to a Fourth Century ruling, the date of Easter is set for on the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, which is the first Full Moon of Spring, occurring on or shortly after the Vernal Equinox. March 22 is the earliest Easter can occur on any given year, and April 25 is the latest."
Since the Resurrection of Jesus took place the Sunday after Passover, it makes sense that Easter moves around, since Passover was based on the Hebraic calendar. But it does seem odd, in our time of technology and science, that we are still taking any notice of the moon at all. As society has became increasingly less agriculturally and seasonally focused and become more and more "clock-based," particularly after the Industrial Revolution, how refreshing to discover that this major Feast Day is based on the movements of the cosmic world. After all, isn't that exactly what happened on Easter morning? A local, specific event took place that was not dependent on the actions or beliefs of humans, but which is nevertheless a cosmic event, in fact THE cosmic event. The dove on this cross, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, not only speaks to the re-creation of the world that occurred through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it also points to Pentecost which will take place 50 days later, when the Holy Spirit descends in a gust of wind and tongues of fire. At Easter, though, we can remember the lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "God's Grandeur"
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
May: The Summer Days Cross
And with May the year swings back into "ordinary" time, that time of the year represented liturgically by the color green. The high, holy days of Easter are finished, and it's time for us to refocus on growth. Note that "ordinary" does not mean "regular" or "boring." It actually means "ordered", as in the weeks are numbered in order. It also signifies the "normative" time of the year, and refers to the business that should now be occupying us - how to grow in the life of discipleship. Now we shift our focus to new growth, to re-growth. It's appropriate, then, that the flower in the heart of this cross is a simple 5 petaled flower such as an impatien. It ushers in images of mounds of color, red, pink, white and fuchsia, waving in the summer breeze, multiplying over the weeks in the mellow days, filling in all of the bare places with an abundance of life. Impatiens are simple, unpretentious, uncomplicated, and joyful.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, one of the 4 female Doctors of the Church and a noted mystic, healer and gardener, had an expression for ordinary time, and indeed, for the divine presence she intuited in every created thing. She called this divine presence the "greening of God," the life force at work in all of creation, in Latin viriditas. She proclaimed that creation is an essential source of revelation of the divine maker. Creation is our first language, the first self-communication uttered by God to the new world. In these soft and gentle days of May, may we each experience the kindness of the "greening of God."
June: The Rose Cross
In keeping with the liturgical calendar, June is another month of "ordinary" time. June is also the time for the blossoming of rose bushes, especially in warmer areas where Knock-out roses are plentiful.
There's another reason to consider roses during June, though. It's the month of the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Not only is Mary's heart portrayed surrounded by a circle of roses, but the rose itself is a symbol of the height of the spiritual life - a rare and beautiful bloom achieved through suffering, perseverance and sacrifice. In fact, Dante writes in his Paradisio that Heaven itself is in the form of a rose, with the different layers of petals corresponding to the different levels of souls.
And of course, there's the Rosary, meaning "wreath of roses," that asks Mary to hear and intercede for us. One of Mary's titles is "Mystic Rose," and another title from Scripture calls her the "Rose of Sharon." And don't forget about the roses that sit on Mary's feet at Lourdes, or the roses she arranges in St. Juan Diego's tilma in Mexico. Truly, the rose is one of the primary symbols for Mary. But how nice to connect the rose to the "ordinary" days of summer. Mary shows us above all that holiness and following the path of God can be found right in the life where we are - in the long, slow days of June, when we are involved in the minutia and the mundane. In fact, most of the Marian apparitions took place in very ordinary places, to very ordinary people - shepherd children playing in Portugal (Fatima), an Indian man walking to Mass in the morning (Guadalupe), a young girl collecting firewood (Lourdes). God isn't just found in the far away, the extraordinary and unique. He is as close as the grass under your feet, as near as your own heartbeat, and this Rose Cross of June reminds us to stop and smell the roses, and remember that.
The July cross features red and blue rhinestones set into the arms and legs of the cross, connected through 4 white rhinestones in the center. My first thought is that this is clearly a nod to the big July celebration - July 4th, Independence Day. In case you ever wondered, an article from TIME magazine, quoting Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, has this to say about the colors of red, white and blue: "White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue… signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.” This was the reason behind using the three colors in the flag. Interestingly, the House of Representatives produced a book about Old Glory as recently as 1977. They talk about the colors, as well as the use of stars as symbols for the states. The book states "The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”
What is implied but not stated is that freedom and "the divine goal" are connected. As this cross reminds us, true freedom is found in the cross of Christ. What a paradox. You save your life by giving it away. The death of Christ as a criminal of the Roman Empire results in the liberation of the world. But just because we haven't experienced true freedom, either personally or globally, doesn't mean we should look elsewhere for the path to freedom. Instead, we should consider the words of G.K. Chesterton. "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. Rather, it has been tried and found too difficult." Those are wise words; who among us really wants to experience the radical freedom of the cross? It's much easier to stay down here on the ground, or even disappear from the scene entirely. Certainly, during the month of July we should remember in prayer those who served and did pay with their lives. But we should also honestly ask ourselves "How free do I really want to be? From what? And am I willing to follow the rays of light from the Son to get there?"
The August cross features one of the iconic symbols of summer - the sunflower. Everytime I look at this cross I think of the lyrics from the song "I'll follow the sun." And that is certainly what sunflowers are known for; their unusual ability to noticeably follow the path of the sun during the course of the day. "During growth, sunflowers tilt during the day to face the sun, but stop once they begin blooming. This tracking of the sun in young sunflower heads is called heliotropism. By the time they are mature, sunflowers generally face east." (www.wikipedia.com) What a fascinating plant. In the days of its youth, the sunflower seeks out the sun and moves and tilts toward it. Once it blooms, however, and reaches maturity it simply faces east.
This seems a perfect metaphor for spiritual growth. In the early days of spiritual development (which doesn't necessarily correspond to physical age) we seek out the life giving rays of the sun, or the Son. This is the normative path for growth. As the Parable of the Sower reminds us, if the plant is in good soil it will grow strong and tall, and bear much fruit. But as we know, there are usually plenty of obstacles to keep us from this path of consistent growth. These obstacles might include doubt, distraction, misplaced loyalty or simply hardness of heart. The good news is that dealing with each of these issues, clearing them out of the soil, always results in better, fuller growth. As the sunflower shows us, it is at the end of this growth that spiritual maturity takes place. It is shown when the seeker moves into a place of stillness. T.S. Eliot calls this state "the still point," when we will "arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Scripture refers to it by saying it is seeing "the face of God," that this vision is what we all seek and it is enough to satisfy us. The East, after all, is the symbol of new beginnings. It is the place of the dawn. In the apparitions at Fatima, for example, Our Lady left the children by going off to the East. We wait "in joyful hope" for the dawn of the new creation, when all things will be made new in God. To prepare and even now participate in the new creation, we might ask ourselves "Who or what am I following every day? Where am I facing?"
This is a really unusual cross. I haven't seen anything like it. It speaks of at least 5 things:
1. The Incarnation. The Word of God (aka the Scriptures) becoming flesh, living among us, and eventually dying for us on the cross.
2. The Our Father. The words "Our Father" are written across the pages of the Bible, an enormously appropriate placement because the Gospels can be summed up in the Our Father, the only prayer Christ gave us.
3. The 4 Points. The Bible is laid across both the horizontal and vertical arms of the cross, reaching all 4 points (NEWS), reminding us of Jesus' last words - to take the Gospel out to the entire world, to all 4 corners, to all nations.
4. The Month. Since this cross coincides with the month when most students are heading back to school, at least in the northern hemisphere, it points to the need for everyone to study. Students should see their studies as a a participation in the work of the Holy Spirit, as a holy and noble vocation. This doesn't just apply to Scripture study, but to all study of what is good. For example, medical students are learning how to be healers. Teachers are learning the best ways to inspire a love for knowledge and wisdom in their students.
5. The Blue Color. In the minds of most Catholics, blue is automatically associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. (And yes, sapphire is also the birthstone for September.) Certainly, Mary's Fiat allowed for the Incarnation. Her entire life was a prayer offered to God, and she was Jesus' first disciple, believing in him even before she could see him. She followed him in his ministry, even to the foot of the cross. Finally, she is called the Seat of Wisdom, the only human who understood Christ and his mission, and never waivered.
Really a powerful-and inspirational- visual image.
Fall is probably my favorite time of year. It's when things naturally come together, likely from a sense of drawing in due to the colder weather. There's a sense of completion, of things coming to an end. The calendar year is ending, so also the Liturgical Calendar is drawing to a close.
But the month of October is still a little way before the end gets here. The big celebration of October is the Minor Triduum - Halloween, and then All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day in November. These days remind us of the continuing call to die to sin and turn back to the Lord, as we celebrate the saints who have finished their journey and are now in the Father's House, while we still remember and pray for those still "on the way," those yet with work to do in Purgatory. It's a beautiful and bold statement about how our faith can reach across the divide and still comfort, help and be near to those on the other side.
This cross is perfect for October. The vines, leaves, berries and pumpkin in the center are all visually repeating one of Jesus' I AM statements. He said "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who remain in me will produce much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (john 15:5) He is the connection, and we are the assorted berries, producing fruit in the world. As we draw near to the end of the year, this statement is not only comforting, in that we see we are not alone, but it also makes our sufferings and sacrifices worthwhile.
This is another cross that is so appropriate for the month! The November cross is made up of 4 golden leaves, one on each corner, framing a deep purple rhinestone cross in the center. Both of the colors - purple and gold- immediately point to the colors of royalty. Back in the day, only royalty were seen in deep purple robes. This had to do with the great expense of dying cloth purple, and so it became known as the color of royalty. During the month of November, the liturgical year wraps up on the Feast of Christ the King, King of the Universe. How appropriate that the cross for November is the purple cross of royalty! What king is more royal than Jesus, the King of Kings?
On the Feast of Christ the King, we celebrate Jesus' victory over death and sin while looking forward to the time when his kingdom will be present in its fullness. Today, in our time, the Kingdom of God is present but not fully here (which is a rather obvious statement). It's "now, but not yet," as the saying goes. So the four golden leaves remind us of the victory laurels given to Olympic athletes as a sign of victory. In this cross, they point to the ultimate victory that will take place at the end of time, in all 4 corners of the universe, in the reordering of the cosmos into Christ, even while we look for this same reordering to be taking place in a smaller way around us and in us, everyday.
But as we walk around outside these days, crunching on the fallen leaves, another thought always comes to mind. I can't help but think of all those who have already passed on, most likely because the month begins with the remembrance of All Saint's and All Soul's Day. Those leaves that have fallen from our own family trees. It brings great comfort to link those loved ones with the victory of Christ, believing that those who died in him will also rise in him and share in his victory. The golden leaves of the victor, the purple cross of royalty, the promise of shared eternal life - this is truly a cross of glory.
This cross portrays one of the most iconic sights of the Christmas season - the poinsettia. And as a part of nature, the poinsettia is so appropriate for Christmas! Here, the poinsettia is depicted in two forms simultaneously. First, it is portrayed as a flower, but secondly it is portrayed as a star, radiating outward. In the center of the star flower are three clear rhinestones.
So, interpreting this cross visually is quite simple. The Christmas event, when God becomes human, is first an action of the Holy Trinity, represented by the 3 rhinsestones in the heart of the poinsettia. It is the love of the Trinity that overflows outward into action, much like this star flower, which visually represents the fire-like, furnace-like radiating, powerful love of the Trinity, pouring out like molten lava from the depths of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This immense love is offered and made visible to all 4 points of the whole world, represented by the green rhinestones in each of the 4 corners of the cross. Scripture is enormously clear that with the birth of Christ, the invitation to be in a covenant relationship, first offered to the Jewish people, is now extended to the entire world. The light of the Trinity is now offered to all of creation. And, in fact, the poinsettia is also a flower, a part of creation. This aspect of the cross reminds us that Jesus' entry into the physical world changes everything.
This cross is such a clear, simple and powerful reminder and explanation of what takes place at Christmas. And how awesome to be able to proclaim all of this just by wearing this cross! This is a great example of Pope St. John Paul II's invitation to artists to use their talents to lift up humanity. It happens, even when it's not fully on purpose.