I have been writing articles for Catholic 365.com and other Catholic blogs or groups for over five years now. I am an Eastern Catholic, a member of the Maronite Church. I am also a casual observer of what is going on in our Church and our nation. With all of this being said and after 225 articles having been published my four most viewed articles have dealt with two different subjects- pews and the sign of the cross. What do these two apparently unrelated items have in common? The answer is wood.
Wood, it is just that simple and it is just that complex. Brothers and Sisters, the Gospel is just that simple and it is really constructed out of wood. There I nailed another article and I should quit writing. The problem is that if I quit right now, we would have a great many doubting Thomas out there who would like to see the facts first before they believe. Well, this is the rest of the story.
The cross was a symbol of death used by the Romans to instill fear and trembling into people. The concept was to allow the person suffering to experience a painful death and at the same time show the people of the village or city exactly what could happen to them if they dared to go against the power of Rome. There were faster ways to die, there were easier ways to kill people, but what the cross did was reinforce the message that Rome was wanting the public to hear- obey, obey, obey. Do not obey and this will be you. Unlike the modern state-sponsored prisons that execute a convict with a lethal injection in the privacy of being secluded from the public view- the Romans did it to humiliate the person and tell others to watch out.
Now with this in mind, Pontius Pilate, sent Jesus to his death on the cross with no earthly idea that the instrument of death, the instrument of Rome’s power, and the instrument that instilled fear in many people all across the Roman Empire would in few short years develop into a religious symbol of power and grace. The reason being is that the cross (a piece of wood) was not the final resting place for Jesus. Jesus rose from the dead, and the cross offers the believer the knowledge that they too can be raised from the dead. They too can over death and they too can overcome the powers of this earth for the next.
In effect, the cross represents the symbol of the Church- the resurrection. You can not really use an empty tomb, so the instrument of death becomes a symbol of rebirth or resurrection like the Apostle Paul stated.
1 Corinthians:15 12-19
12 But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. 15 Then we are also false witnesses to God because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, 17 and if Christ has not been raised,* your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.
We clearly see why Christians and the early Church would adopt this as a symbol of their new faith. This one symbol embraces all of the Gospel. This one symbol can explain by the use of our fingers- the relationship between the Father and the Son. The relationship between the Father/Son and Holy Spirit. Simply put before the advent of universal reading, the printing press, and modern media, people learned their religions through these types of symbols.
As Christianity became an organized state-sponsored religion many changes were made. No longer did Christians have to meet in private or secret. No longer was it against the law to display your religion. At this time a formal way of making the sign of the cross was instituted. This is still the way that the Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics follow, it is different from the gesture that Roman Catholics in the Western Church used to make the sign.
From the early Fourth Century Through the 1100s, the sign was made with the thumb and fingers held together in a specific manner that symbolized two incredibly important aspects of our faith. It steadfastly affirmed the belief in the Holy Trinity, which also refuted heretics’ belief that Jesus wasn’t both God and man. And the positions of the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger represented the Greek abbreviation IXC (Iesus Christus Soter, Jesus Christ Savior). It was also made from the forehead to the stomach to the right lungs and then end on the heart. God the father was the forehead, the son Jesus Christ- our bread of life was the stomach, the Holy Spirit was crossed from the right to left and ended in your heart. This was meant to be richly symbolic and something that people would do often in the Liturgy (Mass).
The West changes the way they make the sign of the cross under Pope Innocent III. He explained the change when he said “This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).”
The purpose of this article is not to point out the differences but to point out why the sign of the cross has been such an important part of our faith. It explains in one simple gesture the entirety of the Gospel or the good news of Jesus. The sign of cross predates our Liturgy and is something that allows us to actively participate in daily life. We become much more Christ-centered if we practice and use this sign.
The second aspect of the wood is the Pews. If the sign of the cross represents our resurrection which is good- what does the wood of the pews represent? This is an odd question at first glance because it appears that the answer should be obvious. The pews are there for comfort. The pews are there for our benefit, your benefit, and mine. Correct? Well, not so fast on this one.
If the wood of the cross represents his victory over physical death, the wood of the pew may represent in a very real way the actual pain of our spiritual death. We need to rise up and overcome the pews. If Christ can rise from the dead, then we too can rise from the pews. Many of us are too comfortable to just sit and get entertained at Church. We view Church as an activity like a sporting event. We watch but we are not playing. Brothers and Sisters, this is not the way it should be. We are players and this game we are in is our life. We are in it to win it. We are not here to sit down and watch it. This is not some sort of movie or sporting event. Satan is real. Satan tempts people and Satan wants us to not be active. In fact, he counts on it. It is okay to miss a Sunday or two. Then it becomes three or four. Soon monthly roll by and you no longer remember the last time you went to Church. Sound familiar? This is a story that is playing out all too often all over the world today.
The pews represent our comfort zone. We are comfortable letting others do the work for you. Brothers and sisters, it may be comfortable but is it right? Is it the right thing for us to do? Were you created to be a bench-warming in your own life? Were you created to be a spectator in this world and the next? If you believe this then you are suddenly informed over the purpose of both this world and the next. We are supposed to be active Christians. We are active in the Liturgy (mass) and activie in our daily lives with our faith. Our beliefs should not be on Sunday only, they are every day of the week.
Therefore, Brothers and Sisters, stand up and be ready. Stand up for your faith and stand up, get out of the pews, and bring Christ in your life now and forever. By doing this we see that we combine the two pieces of wood (the Cross and Pews) and strengthen our faith, help others to see theirs and make this world a better place to live. Amen