Monday, March 23, 2015

ἐν τούτῳ νίκα

In this [sign], conquer. 

Latinized to in hoc signo vinces by Christian writers after Lactantius and Eusebius, the sign refers to the Chi-Rho, the digraph depicting the crossier-like shepherd's staff (Gk. letter Rho) with a superimposed "X" (Gk. letter Chi). Though he did not understand the meaning of the symbol, Constantine later interpreted it as a omen of victory in battle, and had the Chi-Rho incorporated into the labarum, the standard raised in the vanguard of the soon to be victorious Roman troops.

While the Chi-Rho certainly evokes Christ (chi-rho are the first two letters of the word) and the Cross, it was no crucifix. It is rather a sanitized evocation of what would later become an image depicting the body of Christ nailed to a cross. For Constantine the symbol was all idol. Some say Christianity takes a detour in the early 4th century and goes off on a tangent whose trajectory persists today (though some others limit that observation to the Roman Catholic Church).

So let me dispense right now with one of my pet peeves, namely that the "IHS" of the Jesuit symbol does not stand for 'in hoc signo vinces' but simply the 1st 3 letters of the name, "Jesus" in much the same way and the Chi-Rho spells "Christ." Sometimes there are just too many initials in the alphabet soup we call communication.

I mention all of this because Robert Barron's latest video, "ISIS and the Cross," presents the Cross as a provocation, a poke at the supremacy of authority, political power, the State. Barron states that when Paul preaches the crucified Christ, he deliberately subverts the norm, the political 'way things are.' Of course, in Paul's time there was no iconography of the Cross (which does not emerge in the history of the Church until the 3rd century); Paul asserts stauros to conjure the image of the cross and crucifixion, and that would have been enough to disgust, frighten and generally repulse anyone listening to him. His was a stroke of rhetorical genius, not iconographic genius.

The theme of subversion within early Christianity captures the modern imagination. Its popularity gains traction from time to time, but I was a bit taken aback by its appearance in Barron's video. Certainly, there can be no reduction of the Christ-event to a political movement or strategy in Catholicism, but both Paul and the Jesus of the Gospels do indeed introduce an angst into what was passing for religion and politics in those days and even today. 

Does the crucifix today have any rapport with the Chi Rho that launched the Christian West? Are all those Catholic school kids wearing their Communion and Confirmation crosses subverting their world? Does ISIS add to the rolls of the martyrology, and if so where is the victory over the sting of death? What is being seeded in the sacramental murders of these Christian martyrs?

The West has abandoned the Crusade and for good reason. It is interested in its advance and future accomplishments, and tearing its fabric along religious seams can only mean destruction of its project. Indeed, when the West is besieged by religious forces, as it is at this moment, its instincts move it to secularize the agency of its attackers. The political reduction is certainly an expeditious approach, but it distracts from marshaling those religious seams to aid in achieving a broader understand of just what phenomenon is invading and exercising religious violence.

The Chi-Rho is gone, and there is no longer a single Milvian Bridge, despite a West that sometimes appears to be divided against itself. But the earth receives the blood of the martyrs as it waits to insist for the justice-to-come; and brothers' blood cries unto the God-to-come, insisting to exist.

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