The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Disappearing Khachkars

I've devoted a few recent posts to crosses and their presence among us. I think it's important, though, that our veneration should not be focused solely on the Cross, but on Him Who was nailed to it and gave up His life for us by dying on that Cross. A cross, in itself, is merely a piece of wood. It becomes truly meaningful to us only when we see it as the Cross of Christ. I suppose that's why I prefer the crucifix to the plain cross. The empty tomb has real meaning; for it is a sign of hope, the hope that Christ's promise of eternal life will be fulfilled. But without the death of Jesus Christ, without there first being a full tomb, the empty tomb means nothing. And the full tomb must be preceded by a full Cross, the Cross of Christ with Him crucified. Without that Cross there would be no Resurrection and no hope. The Cross of Christ is, therefore, as Pope St. Leo the Great wrote way back in the 5th century, "the true ground and chief cause of Christian hope."

In the Church's Byzantine liturgy there's a 6th-century prayer that proclaims the meaning of the Cross of Christ:

"The Cross is the watcher of the whole world, the Cross is the adornment of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings, the Cross is the strength of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of angels, and the wound of demons."

I especially like those first words, describing the Cross as the "watcher of the whole world." As I thought about all the public crosses I've encountered throughout my life, and the few that I've shared with you in recent posts, these words struck home. I now look at those high crosses of Ireland not only as a sign of the faith of my ancient ancestors who erected them, but also as watchers, as reminders that the Cross of Christ watches over the entire world offering hope to every generation, calling all to conversion, century after century. And that little shrine I encountered as a child in the Bavarian Alps, that lone crucifix standing above the forest path, it too watches and waits for those who pass by, urging every pilgrim to prayer and to thanksgiving for the wonders of God's creation and for the redemptive sacrifice of His Son.

But many today want to remove the Cross from the sight of the world. Yes, the Cross remains today "the wound of demons" and Satan would like nothing more than to turn it into just another historical artifact. This, of course, will never happen because the Cross is always victorious. How did G. K. Chesterton put it? "The Cross cannot be defeated because it is defeat." The Cross, then, is that wonderful mystery that displays the power of God through what the world perceives as powerlessness. And so it will always remain the "strength of the faithful."

Of course, the ultimate victory of Christ and His Cross doesn't mean we should sit back quietly and contentedly when that Cross is attacked. We still have our role to play in the ongoing history of salvation. This leads me to the threat faced by Khachkars, the ancient cross stones of the Armenian people. There are 50,000 or more Khachkars scattered throughout Armenia, both the historical Armenia and the present independent state. Dating as far back as the 4th century, they are remarkable works of early Christian art, free-standing ornately carved stone slabs that vary in height from five to ten feet. Each stone is unique, although almost every stone includes a cross. I've included a photo of a typical Khachkar at left.

The problem today is many of the oldest and most beautiful Khachkars do not stand in present day Armenia, but are located in sections of Turkey and Azerbaijan that were once a part of historical Armenia. Today both countries are majority Muslim and the governments of these nations have undertaken active programs aimed at the complete destruction of all Khachkars within their borders. In one Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan soldiers armed with sledgehammers destroyed every one of the Khachkars, and the Turks are busily carrying out their own program of destruction. I find it interesting that world opinion rose up and condemned the Islamist Taliban in 2001 when they dynamited the huge, ancient sandstone statues of Buddha, but when the Muslim governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan engage in active programs to destroy Christian treasures, the world is silent. (Read more on this here.)

For every cross destroyed in the world, let us raise another to God's glory, even if that cross is only the sign you and I make when we touch our foreheads.

"I see crosses at every turn. My flesh shudders over it, but my heart
adores them. Yes, I hail you, crosses little and great, I hail you, and
kiss your feet, unworthy of the honor of your shadow."
-- St. Francis de Sales

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