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The Anglo-Saxon poem that exults the Holy Cross

Detail from the Cloisters Cross (Wikimedia)

'The Dream of the Rood' is the product of a society that understood the transformative power of the Cross

Carved in golden-toned walrus ivory, covered with tiny figures and inscriptions, the Cloisters Cross is unique among early medieval treasures. Of English workmanship, it is so sophisticated that scholars say it’s as if the ideas represented in the façade of Chartres Cathedral were compressed into a cross not quite two feet high.

At its centre, a medallion shows Moses holding up the bronze serpent for the Israelites to look upon and live—a prefiguring of the Crucifixion. A scroll gives the verse from St John: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

It is this exaltation, or lifting up, that we celebrate on September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In the day’s Gospel, also taken from St John, Christ promises: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself.”

The glory of the Cross was a theme beloved by Anglo-Saxons long before the Cloisters Cross sculptor set chisel to ivory. Their crucifixes were often covered with precious metals and stones, with Christ shown living, crowned and victorious, head upright, eyes open. This theme found shape in their literature too, notably the Old English Dream of the Rood.

In this poem, the Rood on which Christ died appears to a Dreamer in a midnight vision, a “most rare tree” reaching high aloft, “wound in light, brightest of beams.” It shines splendidly, “adorned with garments, decked with gold,” and covered with jewels. As the Dreamer watches, its magnificence shifts subtly to reveal “ancient agony:” it is “drenched with flowing of blood.”

What’s remarkable is that the Rood is no inanimate relic; it is a living and speaking personality, come to tell the Dreamer of its role in Christ’s Passion. Brought to Calvary by “strong foes,” the Rood beholds “the Lord of mankind hasten with stout heart, for he would climb upon me,” recalling old English imagery of Christ as a young warrior, leaping down from heaven and coming joyfully to the Cross as to the trial of His strength.

The Rood longs to knock down every last one of Christ’s executioners, and it’s hard not to sympathize (until we remember we’re among them, that is). “I might have felled all foes,” the Rood says wistfully, “but I stood fast.” Having “lifted up the mighty King, Lord of the heavens,” the Rood watches as the shades of night cover the splendour of His body with mist. “All creation wept, bewailed the King’s fall; Christ was on Cross.” The poem ends with an expression of the Dreamer’s faith in the victorious Son of God.

Works like the Dream of the Rood and the Cloisters Cross are the fruits of societies that profoundly understood the transformative impact of the Cross. As one thinker put it, “What does Our Lord want, if not that His redeeming sacrifice permeate civil society? What is Christian civilization, what is Christendom, if not the incarnation of the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the life of an entire society?”

Christ’s promise to draw all things to Himself means this feast is a day of great hope, that through the exaltation of His Cross we may become the kind of society that burgeons into a Dream of the Rood, a Cloisters Cross, or even a Chartres Cathedral.