Looking at an Oblate Cross: An Oblate Reflects

By Fr. James Flavin, OMI

Fr. James Flavin, OMI

Recently, the eBay website offered for sale a genuine Oblate Cross for five hundred dollars. Every Oblate Cross has special, hard won value. An Oblate Cross has accompanied each Oblate during his life through difficult times and sweet times. They have valuable stories to tell, if they could.

In 1054 a.d., at a synod in Constantinople, the Eastern Church offered a new, graphic image of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. On their crucifix, Christ was naked, a cloth spread across his loins, his body bent from suffering, arms stretched on the cross beam, dislocated, his head bowed in death, inclined toward his right shoulder.

Christ’s head, bowed to the right, is said to be Jesus acknowledgment in death of the spear wound in his right side, and also, Christ’s acknowledgment of his mother, who stood at the foot of the cross, at his right side, the place of honor for a loved one.

The representatives of Pope Leo IX, at the Constantinople synod angrily protested  the graphic, detailed, lurid cruelty of the Eastern Church’s image of Jesus crucified. Synod participants restrained the Pope’s representative’s violent reactions.

In the early centuries of the Church, when it was displayed, the image of Christ on the cross was a catechetical tool to teach about the crucified, risen Christ to the expanding and largely illiterate Roman Empire Christian population. Christ was portrayed on the cross robed, upright, arms open to the world, his lordly eyes gazing outward.

Today there are many ways Christ’s crucified body is presented. Artists, liturgists and teachers high light various aspects of Jesus crucifixion, but the general details of the thousand year old, Constantinople image have stood the test of time, and that image is the most common way Christ on the cross is displayed.

Each Oblate at his perpetual vow ceremony receives an Oblate cross, brass, inlaid with ebony, a brass figure of Christ mounted on the cross and no other markings.

The image of Jesus Christ on the Oblate Cross used by Eugene de Mazenod, and which is the image most Oblate Crosses have, presents Jesus crucified, naked, cloth across his loins and body bent from suffering. But on the Oblate Cross Christ is alive, head raised, eyes closed. Many say, on the Oblate Cross, Christ’s face looks patient, indifferent to his torment, even to his anguish that God the Father has let him suffer and die by himself(Mt.27:46).

The image of a living Jesus on the cross, still suffering, points out Christ’s suffering is united to the suffering of humanity. Christ, alive on the cross,  also reminds us of our personal, individual crosses, that our suffering is a participation in the suffering of Christ. We can know Christ, St. Paul says, “in the fellowship of his suffering,”(Phil. 3, 10).

Eugene de Mazenod said the Oblate Cross will remind each Oblate, “of the humanity, patience, charity, modesty and all the other virtues with which they are to carry out their ministry.”

The image of Jesus Christ, dead on the cross, head bowed, throws a different light on the crucifixion. Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures(Rom. 5:9). God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died on the cross for us(Rom.5:9). Christ died submitting to his father’s will. By his death Christ opened salvation to people.

When Eugene de Mazenod composed the first rule of life for the fledgling Missionaries of Provence, along with other resources, he kept on his desk, as a guide, the Redemptorist rule of life, written by Alphonsus Ligouri.

Along with the Redemptorist rule, Eugene de Mazenod also adapted a variation of the Redemptorist Mission Cross as the distinguishing mark for the Oblate religious habit. The Redemptorist Mission Cross, about the same size as an Oblate Cross, is given to each Redemptorist, after ordination, when they receive their first mission assignment. It is a preaching and teaching aid, but it is not part of their religious habit.

The Oblate cross, given at perpetual vows is part of the Oblate religious habit. It is also  used when preaching and teaching.

On the Redemptorist Cross, unlike the Oblate Cross, Jesus head is bowed in death. Attached to the Redemptorist Cross are the INRI sign above Jesus head and below Christ are a skull and crossed bones.

Christ on the Cross is a central image of the Christian faith. There are many different crucifixion images, some graphic, some beautifully shaped, some are abstract, cerebral images of Christ’s crucifixion.

Saint Basil, in the fourth century, said Scripture reveals to us the Word of God and also gives us the image of God. Holy images like Christ crucified are part of God’s revelation.