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The Holy Family


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e "The Book of Job"




The Holy Family



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Peter Paul Rubens


Peter Paul Rubens


Peter Paul Rubens


Peter Paul Rubens


Peter Paul Rubens




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Part XXV


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian mysticism » History of Christian mysticism » Western Catholic Christianity
The founder of Latin Christian mysticism is Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354–430). In his Confessions Augustine mentions two experiences of “touching” or “attaining” God. Later, in the Literal Commentary on Genesis, he introduced a triple classification of visions—corporeal, spiritual (i.e., imaginative), and intellectual—that influenced later mystics for centuries. Although he was influenced by Neoplatonist philosophers such as Plotinus, Augustine did not speak of personal union with God in this life. His teaching, like that of the Eastern Fathers, emphasized the ecclesial context of Christian mysticism and the role of Christ as mediator in attaining deification, or the restoration of the image of the Trinity in the depths of the soul. The basic elements of Augustine’s teaching on the vision of God, the relation of the active and contemplative lives, and the sacramental dimension of Christian mysticism were summarized by Pope Gregory I the Great in the 6th century and conveyed to the medieval West by many monastic authors.

Two factors were important in the development of this classic Augustinian form of Western mysticism. The first was the translation of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and other Eastern mystics by the 9th-century thinker Johannes Scotus Erigena. In combining the Eastern and Western mystical traditions, Erigena created the earliest version of a highly speculative negative mysticism that was later often revived. The other new moment began in the 12th century when new forms of religious life burst on the scene, especially among monks and those priests who endeavoured to live like monks (the canons). The major schools of 12th-century mysticism were inspired by new trends in monastic piety, especially those introduced by Anselm of Canterbury, but they developed these in a systematic fashion unknown to previous centuries. The great figures of the era, especially Bernard of Clairvaux among the Cistercians and Richard of Saint-Victor among the canons, have remained the supreme teachers of mystical theology in Catholic Christianity, along with the Spanish mystics of the 16th century.

Cistercian and Victorine authors made two significant contributions to the development of Catholic mysticism: first, a detailed study of the stages of the ascent of the soul to God on the basis of a profound understanding of the human being as the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and, second, a new emphasis on the role of love as the power that unites the soul to God. Building on both Origen and Augustine, Bernard and his contemporaries made affective, or marital, union with God in oneness of spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17) a central theme in Western mysticism, though along with Gregory the Great they insisted that “love itself is a form of knowing,” that is, of vision or contemplation of God.

The great mystics of the 12th century contributed to an important expansion of mysticism in the following century. For the first time mysticism passed beyond the confines of the monastic life, male writers, and the Latin language. This major shift is evident not only in the life of Francis of Assisi, who emphasized the practical following of Jesus and came to be identified with him in a new form of Christ-mysticism, manifested in his reception of the stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ, but also in the remarkable proliferation of new forms of religious life and mystical writing in the vernacular on the part of women. Although female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Elizabeth of Schönau were an important influence on mysticism and spirituality in the 12th century, the 13th century witnessed a flowering of interest in mysticism among women, evident in the Flemish Hadewijch of Brabant, the German Mechthild von Magdeburg, the French Marguerite Porete, and the Italians Clare of Assisi and Àngela da Foligno.

Among the important themes of the new mysticism of the 13th century was a form of Dionysian theology in which the stage of divine darkness surpassing all understanding was given a strong affective emphasis, as well as the emergence of an understanding of union with God that insisted upon a union of indistinction in which God and the soul become one without any medium. The first of these tendencies is evident in the writings of Bonaventure, the supreme master of Franciscan mysticism; the second is present in some of the women mystics, but its greatest proponent was the Dominican Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart taught that “God’s ground and the soul’s ground is one ground,” and the way to the realization of the soul’s identity with God lay less in the customary practices of the religious life than in a new state of awareness achieved through radical detachment from all created things and a breakthrough to the God beyond God. Though Eckhart’s thought remained Christological in its emphasis on the necessity for the “birth of Son in the soul,” his expressions of the identity between the soul that had undergone this birth and the Son of God seemed heretical to many. Without denying the importance of the basic structures of the Christian religion, and while insisting that his radical preaching to the laity was capable of an orthodox interpretation, Eckhart and the new mystics of the 13th century were a real challenge to traditional Western ideas of mysticism. Their teaching seemed to imply an autotheism in which the soul became identical with God, and many feared that this might lead to a disregard of the structures and sacraments of the church as the means to salvation and even to an antinomianism that would view the mystic as exempt from the moral law. In 1329, therefore, Pope John XXII condemned 28 of Eckhart’s propositions as heretical or open to evil interpretation. Eckhart, however, seems to have retracted these errors before his death in 1327 or 1328.

Even before Eckhart’s posthumous condemnation, the church struck out against the mystics. The Council of Vienne condemned their errors in 1311, shortly after Marguerite Porete was burned as a heretic for continuing to disseminate her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Marguerite’s work was a highly popular treatise and handbook that described the seven stages of the ascent to God and maintained that the soul could achieve union with God while still on earth. The council associated these views with the Beguines, groups of religious women who did not live in cloister or follow a recognized rule of life. The council also denounced the Beghards, a group of heretical mystics who were the male counterparts of the Beguines and were often associated with them, for their antinomian and libertine views. In the centuries that followed, some mystics were condemned and others executed, though evidence for a widespread “mystical heresy” is lacking.

The great mystical writers of the late Middle Ages, however, took pains to prove their orthodoxy. Eckhart’s followers among the Rhineland mystics, especially Heinrich Suso and Johann Tauler, defended his memory but qualified his daring language. Texts such as the anonymous Theologia Germanica of the late 14th century, which reflects the ideas of the loose groups of mystics who called themselves the Friends of God, conveyed this German mysticism to the Reformers. The rich mystical literature that developed in the Low Countries reached its culmination in writings of Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381). In Italy two remarkable women, Catherine of Siena in the 14th century and Catherine of Genoa in the 15th, made important contributions to the theory and practice of mysticism. The 14th century also was the “Golden Age” of English mysticism, as conveyed in the writings of the hermit Richard Rolle; the canon Walter Hilton, who wrote The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection; the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing; and his contemporary, the visionary recluse Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love is unsurpassed in English mystical literature. Julian’s meditations on the inner meaning of her revelations of the crucified Christ express the mystical solidarity of all humanity in the Redeemer, who is conceived of as a nurturing mother.

In the 16th century the centre of Roman Catholic mysticism shifted to Spain, the great Roman Catholic power at the time of the Reformation. Important mystics came both from the traditional religious orders, such as Francis de Osuna among the Franciscans, Luis de León among the Augustinians, and Luis de Grenada among the Dominicans, and from the new orders, as with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. The two pillars of Spanish mysticism, however, were Teresa of Ávila (1515–82) and her friend John of the Cross (1542–91), both members of the reform movement in the Carmelite order. Teresa’s Life is one of the richest and most convincing accounts of visionary and unitive experiences in Christian mystical literature; her subsequent synthesis of the seven stages on the mystical path, The Interior Castle, has been used for centuries as a basic handbook. John of the Cross was perhaps the most profound and systematic of all Roman Catholic mystical thinkers. His four major works, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love, constitute a full theological treatment of the active and passive purgations of the sense and the spirit, the role of illumination, and the unification of the soul with God in spiritual marriage.

In the 17th century France took the lead with figures such as Francis of Sales, Pierre de Bérulle, Brother Lawrence (the author of The Practice of the Presence of God), and Marie Guyard. At this time concentration on the personal experience of the mystic as the source for “mystical theology” (as against the common scriptural faith and sacramental life of the church) led to the creation of mysticism as a category and the description of its adherents as mystics. At the same time, the rise of the Quietist controversy brought about renewed conflict over mysticism. A Spaniard resident in Rome, Miguel de Molinos, author of the popular Spiritual Guide (1675), was condemned for his doctrine of the “One Act,” that is, the teaching that the will, once fixed on God in contemplative prayer, cannot lose its union with the divine. In France Mme Guyon and her adviser, François Fénelon, archbishop of Cambrai, were also condemned for Quietist tendencies emphasizing the role of pure love to the detriment of ecclesiastical practice. These debates cast a pall over the role of mysticism in Roman Catholicism into the 20th century, though important mystics continued to be found, most notably Thomas Merton and Pope John Paul II.

Bernard J. McGinn


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian mysticism » History of Christian mysticism » Protestant Christianity
The chief representatives of Protestant mysticism are the continental “Spirituals,” among whom Sebastian Franck (c. 1499–c. 1542), Valentin Weigel (1533–88), and Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) are especially noteworthy. Among traditional Lutherans Johann Arndt (1555–1621) in his Four Books on True Christianity took up many of the themes of medieval mysticism in the context of Reformation theology and prepared the way for the spiritual revival known as Pietism, within which mystics such as Count von Zinzendorf flourished. The important mystics in England included the Cambridge Platonists (a group of Anglican divines), the Quakers, and William Law (1686–1761). In Holland a mystical group known as Collegiants, similar to the Quakers, broke away from the Remonstrant (Calvinist) Church. Other groups of mystics were the Schwenckfeldians, founded by Kaspar Schwenckfeld, and the Family of Love, founded in Holland by Hendrik Niclaes in about 1540. He later made two trips to England, where his group had its largest following and survived into the 17th century. The religion of the Ranters and other radical Puritans in 17th-century England also had mystical aspects.

Protestant mysticism emphasized the divine element in humanity, which was called the “spark” or “ground” of the soul, the “divine image” or “holy self,” the “Inner Light,” or the “Christ within.” This was one of the essential elements of Rhineland mysticism and shows the connection between medieval and Reformation mysticism. For Böhme and the Spirituals, essential reality lies in the ideal world, which Böhme described as “the uncreated Heaven.” Böhme adopted the Gnostic belief that the physical world arose from a primeval fall, renewed with the Fall of Adam. His teaching was the main formative influence on the developed outlook of William Law and William Blake (1757–1827).

For Protestant as well as for Roman Catholic mystics, sin is the assertion of the self in its separation from God. The divine life is embodied in “the true holy self that lies within the other” (Böhme, First Epistle). When that self is manifested, there is a birth of God (or of Christ) in the soul. Protestant mystics rejected the Lutheran and Calvinist doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. William Law remarked, “The eternal Word of God lies hid in thee, as a spark of the divine nature” (The Spirit of Prayer, I.2). “The eternal Word of God” is the inner Christ, incarnate whenever people rise into union with God. The Spirituals also viewed Christ as the ideal humanity born in God from all eternity. This conception received its greatest emphasis from Schwenckfeld, who, unlike Protestant mystics generally, taught that humans as created beings are totally corrupt; salvation means deliverance from the creaturely nature and union with the heavenly Christ.

Protestant mystics explicitly recognize that the divine Light or Spark is a universal principle. Hans Denck in the early 16th century spoke of the witness of the Spirit in “heathens and Jews.” Sebastian Franck, like the Cambridge Platonists, found divine revelation in the work of the sages of Greece and Rome. George Fox cited the conscience of the Native Americans as proof of the universality of the Inner Light. William Law described non-Christian saints as “apostles of a Christ within.” Protestant mystics stated plainly that, for the mystic, supreme authority lies of necessity not in the written word of Scripture but in the Word of God in the self. Fox said, “I saw, in that Light and Spirit that was before the Scriptures were given forth” (Journal, chapter 2). It was especially on this ground that the mystics came into conflict with the established church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The Ranters provide a good example of the conflict between mysticism and established religion. They held, with Fox and Hendrik Niclaes, that perfection is possible in this life. Puritan leaders under the Commonwealth denounced them for their “blasphemous and execrable opinions,” and there was, no doubt, an antinomian tendency among them that rejected the principle of moral law. Some rejected the very notion of sin and believed in the universal restoration of all things in God.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian mysticism » Significance of Christian mysticism
The study of Christian mysticism reveals both the unity of mysticism as an aspect of religion and the diversity of expression that it has received in the history of Christian faith. The mystic claims contact with an order of reality transcending the world of the senses and the ordinary forms of discursive intellectual knowing. Christian mystics affirm that this contact is with God the Trinity and can take place only through the mediation of Christ and the church. The claim is all the more significant in that Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are here in agreement.

Without suggesting that all mysticism is everywhere one and the same, it can be said that the Christian mystics take their stand with the mystics of other traditions in pointing to “the Beyond that is within.” If Christianity is to embark upon truly cooperative relations with other religions, it must be deeply imbued with the insight and experience of the mystics. Even if it is to attempt to plumb the depths of its own history, it cannot neglect its mystical dimensions.

The Rev. Sidney Spencer
Bernard J. McGinn

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend
Myths and legends number among the most creative and abundant contributions of Christianity to the history of human culture. They have inspired artists, dramatists, clerics, and others to contemplate the wondrous effects of Christian salvation on the cosmos and its inhabitants. They conjoin diverse cultural horizons and fuse them creatively with the religious histories that exist prior to and alongside the orthodox Christian world. Even for the less pious and the nonbelievers, the distinctive visions of reality presented in Christian legend or myth and the symbolic actions based upon them have helped to form the fundaments of Western civilization. Pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints, for example, touches economic and political life, military history, visual and musical arts, popular devotion, and the exchange of scientific information. Moreover, the content of the myths and legends themselves has contributed directly to theories about religion, society, politics, art, astronomy, economics, music, and history.

Myths narrate the sacred events that unfolded in the first time, the epoch of creative beginnings. In that primordial period supernatural beings brought reality into existence. In that sense, myth relates only those things that have really occurred—that is, those realities that have revealed themselves completely. These realities become the foundation of the world, society, and human destiny. The intervention of sacred and supernatural beings accounts for the conditions of the world and humanity today. Myth describes the acts and beings whose appearance shaped material existence in all its concrete specificity.

Legends are episodic continuations of mythic narratives; they describe the effects of primordial events on an imagined history that is as fabulous as the primordial mysteries that brought that history into being. Legends describe history in fantastic terms in order to clarify the significance of the powers that underlie it. The repetitiveness and redundancy of legends demonstrate that many different legends spring from the same mythic sources—that is, from the same primordial events and creative powers. But variants of legend are reminders that myths and their outcomes are historically conditioned and questioned. Christian legend contends with the question of what the Christian mystery means in the here and now. Because of their local frame of reference, legends vary incessantly, and widely different accounts emerge from diverse locales and periods. Favourite legendary themes are the struggles and miraculous adventures of heroes in the faith, accounts that edify the faith and bolster the courage of the listener.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » Characteristics of Christian myth and legend
An appreciation of the positive role of myth and legend in culture has been long in coming. Christian theology, taking its lead from Greek philosophy, at first denigrated the value of myth. In constructing the canon and in choosing authoritative interpretations of it, the early Christians suppressed or excluded myth and legend in favour of philosophy, history, and law. The opinion expressed in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy echoes the prevalent Hellenistic view of myth: “Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths” (1 Timothy 4:7). In spite of that, a number of important mythical themes remain central to the New Testament—e.g., Christ as the second Adam (Romans 5:12–14), the heavenly spheres (2 Corinthians 12:2–4), and the celestial battle between angels and demons.

The Apologists, such as Clement of Alexandria, used myth and legend as allegories to make Christian concepts intelligible to Greek converts. But Clement (e.g., in his Protreptikos [“Exhortation”]) and other Church Fathers roundly condemned the belief that Greek myths might be autonomous sources of truth. In spite of its ambiguous use of mythic symbols and themes, the history of Christian doctrine, from its origins to the present day, testifies to the systematic excision of legendary and mythical elements from Christian orthodoxy. Even folk practices, based on legend, were policed and suppressed. In 692, for example, the Quinisext Council (also known as the Trullan Synod), an episcopal council convoked by the Byzantine emperor Justinian II, prohibited baking bread in the form of the Virgin Mary’s placenta, as was the custom on the afterbirth day (that is, the day after Christ’s birth).

A second cause for the delay in evaluating the positive contributions of myth and legend to religious life is the theories of religion that have flourished since the time of the European Enlightenment. These theories treated myths as projections of the prerational childhood of the human race (projections surpassed by the mature rationalism of the Enlightenment). More intimate knowledge of mythic traditions in Africa, India, Oceania, and the Americas, however, has disclosed the important role myth plays in culture and highlighted the coherence and sophisticated order of myth.

Lawrence E. Sullivan

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The early church
Hellenistic Judaism had already reinterpreted many Gentile motifs and set them within a biblical context. From Jewish sources Christians adopted and adapted some mythical themes: the creation of the world, the end of the paradisal condition and the fall of humankind, the assumption of human form by a god, the saved saviour, the cataclysm at the end of time, and the final judgment. Christians reframed these motifs within their new images of history and their doctrines concerning the nature of God, sin, and redemption. As it spread beyond Palestine and the Hellenistic world, Christianity continued to develop mythical themes important to the religious consciousness of converted peoples.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The early church » The ages of the world
By the time the New Testament was written, Jewish apocalyptic writings (symbolic or cryptographic literature portraying God’s dramatic intervention in history and catastrophic dramas at the end of a cosmic epoch) had already produced theories of history that reworked Indo-Iranian notions about the ages of the world, influencing Christian views of time, history, and human destiny. The prophet Zoroaster (c. 628 bc–c. 551) and his followers in Iran taught that there were four ages of the world; each age was a different phase in the struggle between two kinds of powers—light and darkness, goodness and evil, spirit and matter, infinity and finitude, health and sickness, time and eternity. The forces of good and evil battled for the allegiance and the souls of human beings. In the last days a promised saviour (Saoshyant) would pronounce final judgment and announce the coming of a new world without end in which truth, immortality, and righteousness would have everlasting reign.

Drawing on Jewish apocalyptic literature (exemplified in the Book of Daniel), early Christian apocalypse (exemplified in the Book of Revelation) elaborated the theme of the ages of the world as a series of historical periods in which good struggles against evil: (1) from the creation of the world and of humanity to the Fall into sin and out of Eden; (2) from the Fall to the first coming of Christ; (3) from the first to the second advent of Christ, which includes the 1,000-year reign of Christ and his saints and the Last Judgment; and (4) the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in which those who have chosen the good (i.e., Christ) will live in eternity. Within this framework of the mythical history of the ages of the world, Christian apocalyptic re-envisions a number of themes important to Jewish apocalypticism: the Son of man and the great tribulation prior to the judgment of the world; the battle between Christ and the Antichrist, a false messiah or “great liar” who denies that Jesus is the Christ and who pitches the world into moral confusion and physical chaos; and the ultimate triumph over Satan, who appears as a dragon but who no longer deceives the nations of the world.

The theme of the ages of the world has had a long and fruitful life in Christian thought and undergirds many Western concepts of progress toward a better state of existence or of decline toward extinction. Montanus, a heretical Christian prophet of the early 2nd century, claimed that history progressed from an age of the Father to an age of the Son to an age of the Holy Spirit, of whom Montanus was the manifestation. Such apocalyptic myths underlie not only the religious theories of a multistage history, as propagated by Joachim of Fiore, Martin Luther, the early Jesuits, Christopher Columbus (in his Book of Prophecies), and Giambattista Vico, but also the more secular philosophies of history developed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Henri de Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, and Karl Marx.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The early church » Messianic secrets and the mysteries of salvation
New Testament references to the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (for example, Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10) and to the mysteries of salvation were an important source for the growth of myth and legend. Things hidden from the beginning of the world would blossom in the signs of the new messianic age and would be proclaimed to the whole world. Through myth and legend Christians transmitted and explored the wonders revealed in Christ and the secrets of his salvation.

Esoteric traditions, especially those based on apocalypses and apocrypha (such as the Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Secret Gospel of Mark, and Gospel of Philip) preserve some legends and myths found in the early Christian centres of Edessa, Alexandria, and Asia Minor. The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus (known also as the Arabic Infancy Gospel), for example, recounts that, one day, Jesus and his playmates were playing on a rooftop and one fell down and died. The other playmates ran away, leaving Jesus accused of pushing the dead boy. Jesus, however, went to the dead boy and asked, “Zeinunus, Zeinunus, who threw you down from the housetop?” The dead boy answered that Jesus had not done it and named another (I Infancy 19:4–11). This and similar narratives describe the “hidden life” of Jesus in the 30 years before his public ministry began. Other legends appear in the Acts of the Martyrs, various histories, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which narrates the story of a friend of Paul who was thrown to the lions—one of which defended her in a manner similar to that of the lion in the story of Androcles. Once orthodoxy had been established, these mythic themes appeared clumsy and, in retrospect, heterodox or even heretical.

Groups of Gnostics and heretics, who based their ideas on alternative interpretations of the economy of salvation, developed exotic Christian myths, legends, and practices. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, dualists believed that the world of matter created by an evil god (identified as the god of the Book of Genesis) and the realm of the spirit created by a good god (revealed in the New Testament) were irreconcilably pitted against one another. The Gnostic sects—among them the Valentinians, Basilidians, Ophites, and Simonians—developed a variety of myths. Among them were those of Valentinus, who lived in Rome and Alexandria in the mid-2nd century. Valentinian myths describe how the pleroma (spiritual realm) that existed in the beginning was disrupted by a Fall. The Creator God of Genesis, aborted from the primordial world, became a Demiurge and created the material universe. He deliberately created two kinds of human being, the hylics and the psychics, and animated them with his breath. Unknown to the Demiurge, however, certain remnants of pleromic wisdom contained in his breath lodged as spiritual particles in matter and produced a third group of beings called pneumatics. The God of Genesis then sought to prevent Gnostics from discovering their past origins, present powers, and future destinies. Gnostics (the pneumatics) contain within themselves divine sparks expelled from the pleroma. Christ was sent from the pleroma to teach Gnostics the saving knowledge (gnosis) of their true identities and was crucified when the Demiurge of Genesis discovered that Christ (the male partner of the feminine Holy Spirit) was in Jesus. After Christ returned to the pleroma, the Holy Spirit descended.

The Ophites (from the Greek word ophis, “serpent”) offered a new interpretation of the Fall of Genesis. According to the Ophite view, the serpent of the Garden of Eden wanted Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, to eat from the tree of knowledge (gnosis) so that they would know their true identities and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The serpent, thus, is interpreted as a messenger of the spiritual god, and the one who wanted to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is viewed as the Demiurge.

Linwood Fredericksen
Lawrence E. Sullivan


Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The early church » The Magi and the Child of Wondrous Light
The legend of the Magi, who were mentioned in The Gospel According to Matthew, was embellished in apocryphal books and Christian folklore. The Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum relates that 12 Magi-Kings lived near the Mountain of Victories, which they climbed every year in the hope of finding the messiah in a cave on the mountaintop. Each year they entered the cave and prayed for three days, waiting for the promised star to appear. Adam had revealed this location and the secret promises to his son Seth. Seth transmitted the mysteries to his sons, who passed the information from generation to generation. Eventually the Magi, sons of kings, entered the cave to find a star of unspeakable brightness, glowing more than many suns together. The star and its bright light led to, or became, the Holy Child, the son of the Light, who redeems the world.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The early church » Relics and saints
The cult (system of religious beliefs and rituals) of the saints emerged in the 3rd century and gained momentum from the 4th to the 6th century. The bones of martyrs were believed to provide evidence of God’s power at work in the world, producing miracles and spectacles of the effectiveness of faith. The martyrs had imitated Christ even unto death, and the remains of their holy bodies were thought to be points of contact between earth and heaven. On the model of Christ’s Incarnation, the bones of martyred saints embodied God’s salvific power and thus became the centre of active cults. Relics were installed in basillicas or in special churches called martyria. The tombs of martyrs, on the margins of cities and towns, attracted pilgrims and processions. Legends described the prodigious virtues of martyrs and saints, as well as the dreams or visions that revealed the resting places of still more powerful relics. Each discovery (inventio) promised new and effective signs of divine redemption. Returning from distant places, especially Rome, pilgrims brought relics to their home churches. Thus, during the 8th century, bones and other relics were moved from southern Europe to the north and west.

Of all relic discoveries, the most impressive was that of the True Cross (the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, found in September 335 or in 326, according to other accounts). The discovery of the cross (inventio crucis) was one of the more popular legends of the Middle Ages; the basic elements of the tradition had been established by the late 4th century and were associated with a pilgrimage Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, made to Jerusalem in the 320s. According to the legend, Helena, prompted by a dream, located the place where the Cross lay buried and had the wood unearthed. Helena, the tale continues, realized what she found was the True Cross when a sick woman she had lie on it was healed. The power of the Cross, the history of the wood, and the story of its discovery became legendary.

Through the symbolism of the Cross, early Christian imagery perpetuated, and at the same time transformed, the myths of the World Tree. The sacred drama of Christ’s birth, death, and Resurrection participates in the rejuvenating rhythms of the fecund cosmos. Early Christians identified the Cross of Christ as the World Tree, which stood at the centre of cosmic space and stretched from earth to heaven. The Cross was fashioned of wood from the Tree of Good and Evil, which grew in the Garden of Eden. Below the tree lies Adam’s buried skull, baptized in Christ’s blood. The bloodied Cross-Tree gives forth the oil, wheat, grapes, and herbs used to prepare the materials administered in the sacraments that revitalize a fallen world. The Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca later depicted the myth of the True Cross in his frescoes in Arezzo, Italy. They portray the death of Adam, fallen at the foot of the Tree that provides wood for the crucifix on which Jesus is slain. The wood of the Cross, however, becomes the instrument of salvation and the holiest matter in Christendom, and the Cross itself became the focus of tales of fantastic historical episodes.

Helena was responsible for another great discovery when she found Christ’s tomb, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which also became a highlight of Christian legend. Like the body of the Saviour, the tomb is a “holy of holies.” Its discovery was tantamount to the Resurrection, for its reemergence into the light of day was seen as a restoration of life where before only darkness reigned. The Cross and the tomb were woven together in legend. The desire to regain possession of the True Cross and the Holy Sepulchre was the source of inspiration for the Christian knights of the Crusades.

Lawrence E. Sullivan




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