There is no doubt that the cross is the most recognized symbol of Christianity. It symbolizes what our Lord endured for us, what we carry, and our hope for salvation. There is so much meaning wrapped up in this one symbol of our faith. Today, we will take a closer look at one specific aspect of the symbolism of the cross as it relates to our life and our faith.
Not by coincidence, the cross is made up of two beams of wood – one vertical and one horizontal. The vertical beam symbolizes your relationship with God while the vertical beam represents your relationship with others. You need both to form a cross. You need both to be Christian.
We use the vertical beam to represent our relationship with God because we are inferior and He is all-supreme. We look up at Him while He lovingly looks down on us. We reach for heaven while He extends His mercy and grace down to us. This vertical relationship illustrated in the cross is a beautiful thing to imagine. We need to put effort in strengthening that vertical relationship. We do this by praying to God every day and listening to how He speaks back to us, just as we would in any other relationship. We need to frequent the Sacraments and receive His grace in all the ways He has offered to us. We need to go to Mass to hear His Word in Scripture and receive His Body in the Eucharist. This vertical relationship is not passive. Imagine an electrical circuit running up and down the beam, or sound waves pulsating back and forth across it. This is an active relationship with energy going up and down the beam. God extends all sorts of gifts to us and we receive them. We offer everything back up to God and in return, He responds.
The horizontal beam represents our relationship with others. We know that we make up the Body of Christ and that we are all connected to one another on this horizontal plane. Everything we do affects the rest of the particles on that beam. When we sin, it affects our neighbor. When we are charitable and loving, it also affects our neighbor. Again, this relationship between persons is not passive. Christians are called to action. Remember the corporal acts of mercy in Matthew 25:35-40 where Jesus tells us to do things like feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. He reminds us that in doing these things for the least of our brothers, we are doing them for Him. We honor Jesus Christ by being in right relationship with our neighbor and thereby strengthen our horizontal beam.
In order to make a cross, we need both beams equally and for them to be of equal strength. If one beam is nurtured more than the other, the cross becomes imbalanced and could topple. A weaker vertical beam could cause the horizontal to topple altogether while a weaker horizontal beam could cause the cross to slant one way or another. We can take a look at how this might look in practice. We, as Catholics, believe in encouraging social justice and this is a good thing. We want to make sure we are taking care of the least of our brethren. However when we become so focused on being social justice warriors that we neglect to deepen our understanding of Church teaching and learning God’s will through prayer, we lose sight of what God wants of us and how He wants us to get there. Likewise, spending time with Jesus in the Adoration chapel is a good thing. We should most definitely do that. However, if we spend our entire life locked in the Adoration chapel reading and praying, we will miss opportunities to go out and share with other people what we experience in our relationship with Jesus. What good is either beam without the other, because without one or the other, there is no cross.
Now, imagine Jesus hanging on the cross or look at your crucifix at home. In this symbol, the very thing that unifies and connects the vertical aspect to the horizontal aspect in the center is Jesus. Jesus is what brings us to God. He came in His humanity to reveal our relationship to the Holy Trinity. His presence on Earth elevated our humanity. He taught us how to pray and fast and His work brought about our salvation which will eventually enable us to live with the Triune God in Heaven. Jesus is also what unifies us to one another as His body. While he was here, He taught us how to treat one another and taught us that by acting towards others as he did we can participate in our own salvation. By His words and example, He teaches us what it means to brothers and sisters in Him. Without Jesus, our relationship with others loses its deepest value. So, in order to strengthen both our horizontal and vertical relationships, we need Jesus.
Now, imagine a cross with a Eucharistic Host affixed to the center of it. Of course, Catholics know the Eucharist to actually be the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, so when we partake in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we are consuming He who joins us. So, the Holy Eucharist strengthens our vertical relationship with God, “because by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body.” (CCCC #1331) When you are receiving Eucharist and, therefore, sharing in His body along with all of the other people in that same celebration who are also receiving that same body, what do you think happens? You are physically connected to and unified with everyone else who is in that body! The Eucharist therefore strengthens our horizontal bonds with one another through the sharing of the same body. Likewise, we become unified with our Catholic brothers and sisters all over the world as they too share in that same body. This is why celebrating the Eucharist is also called Communion – because through it we enter into communion both with God and one another. There is a very real horizontal and vertical aspect to this Sacrament.
As you reflect on the cross this Lent, think about how it represents the vertical and horizontal relationships in your life and how you might strengthen each of the beams. Remember who is at the center of that cross and joins the horizontal and vertical together and how the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life, is at the center of that cross.