St Finbar's Glenbrook Parish

The Cross and Altar

(An Explanation of the Symbols of St Finbar’s Church Glenbrook)

Symbols of St Finbar's - Cross & Altar
Photo: Peter McMahon

Although the cross was used symbolically in pre-Christian times, the disciples of Jesus did not use it as a Logo until the fifth century by which time crucifixion as a method of execution has long ceased. When the Christians were small, persecuted groups in the towns of the Roman Empire, they preferred to use the lamb, fish and lion as symbols of Christ as these were sufficiently innocuous as not to arouse interest amongst the pagans. The form of the cross that was adopted took two shapes. Firstly, the so-called Greek cross, which was geometrically perfect, as is the one in this church and the Latin cross which is more adaptable to the shape of the human body. It is most likely that Jesus himself did not die on a cross of either shape but rather on one shaped at a 'T' or even a simple stake.

In pre-Reformation England, churches were built in a cruciform shape and at the centre where the east-west axis intersected the north-south axis a cross symbolic of the death of Christ was placed. The old Anglo-Saxon word for cross was 'rod' and later 'rood'. This was the name of the construction beam in the roof which tied the elements of the walls and roof together. Hence the cross that was hung or placed on this beam became known as the 'rood'.

With the passage of time a screen was also hung from the rood beam to separate the chancel form the nave or as we would say, the sanctuary or place of the priest from the nave or the place of the people. With the passage of time the roods (crosses) and their screens were adorned with the figure of Mary and the beloved disciple and the two thieves. At the Reformation, and especially in the Puritans, the roods were dismantled in most of the churches of England but under the influence of the Oxford Movement, the Romantic Movement, and the Gothic revival movement in architecture, many Anglican churches replaced the rood screen especially in many parts of Australia where new Anglican churches were erected after 1850.

The word 'cross' which is derived from the Latin 'crux' gradually supplanted the Anglo-Saxon word 'rod' or 'rood' as the English language developed. The Latin form of the word cross has a root in the ancient original Aryan language. This root word is 'ker' meaning to grow and it finds its modern equivalent in our word 'create'. The simple cross is an image formed by two intersecting straight lines and is tied in with the duality of the created universe as we experience it. Many interpretations have been placed on the cross as a sign long before, by coincidence, as it were, Jesus Christ was put to death on an instrument of that shape. But subsequently Christian iconographers and mystics have loved to intertwine the pre-Christian meanings of the sign of the cross with the theological significances of the death of the Messiah on such an instrument.

In this church the two intersecting beams can be understood as eternity for the vertical and time for the horizontal. In this interpretation we can find a meaning for the use of the words, "I am feeling cross today", i.e., frustrated, irritable, etc. The meaning comes from the idea that a human being's eternal nature is pinned in time. In other words human beings feel an internal conflict between the present existence in time and the call of eternity. The solution to the conflict, or anomaly cannot be found in the denial of the one or the other but in a reconciliation of both.

The Gospel of John which is very rich in allusions to Greek, Jewish, and other literary sources has Jesus using the phrase about his being not of this world and of having an eternal glory before the world was created; (John Ch. 17 and following). In these phrases John is using the 'time' and 'eternity' themes tied up in the symbol of the cross on which Christ died. For the evangelist, John, in Christ the Eternal God enters time and viewing the death of Jesus as a sacrifice, by connecting it with the sacrificial offering of the paschal lambs in the Jerusalem Temple at the same time he achieves a reconciliation between the creature of time, 'man' and the creator, 'God'. It is this theme of reconciliation that is behind our use of crosses at the end of letters to signify kisses.