As individuals, as a Church and as a nation Armenians take the cross very personally. Jerusalem’s Patriarch Torkom Koushagian once said
We Armenians have completely identified our cross with our soul….We have all shared in its experience and kept it alive throughout our existence. We have painted it with our own blood. As a result, just as the Bible was translated into Armenian, the cross has been “translated” directly into our hearts and into our spiritual life. It is truly us. Living with the cross in the 20th century—not living with it as if it were an object on a wall, or even an object of meditation, but as our own, now, is a vital part of our Christian practice.
Armenians believe that every race, nation and group of people has its own cross, uniquely expressive of its identity and faith experience. The Irish have a cross; the Germans have a cross; the Americans have a cross; the Lebanese have a cross. Your family has its cross; my family has its cross. Your parish has its cross; my seminary has its cross.
So it is no surprise that depictions of the cross are ubiquitous wherever Armenians have lived. The landscape of Armenia itself is sprinkled with carved standing crosses called khachkars. Thousands more are found decorating structures. Many serve as tombstones: as the sign of immortality, the cross identifies the space of death as being also the space of life.
Armenians are not shy about the cross. On the contrary. Where it is possible that a khachkar won’t be recognized from a distance, it is carved on a stone shaped like a cross and sited where it will be most visible.
The Armenian cross also defines space. Picture the cross as a flat carving; then in your mind expand it into a three-dimensional hollow structure twenty or thirty feet tall. Put a roof on it. And you have an Armenian church. You may play with the length of the cross’s arms, as Armenian architects have done over the centuries, but whatever the ultimate proportions, an Armenian church building is the cross as space set aside for the meeting of heaven and earth. To stand in the middle of the church, under the light of the dome, is to stand at the spot where the arms of the cross join. All formal Armenian prayer is prayed from within the cross. The cross as church has room within it for all who live or have lived or will live. In it is space to speak to and be heard by God.
Not only is the church building a cross, but the cross marks its architectural features. crosses are carved on church pillars, structural or decorative; the cross is the pillar of the Church’s faith.
Carved above entranceways, the cross is the door to the Good Shepherd’s fold. When one enters the cave church at Geghard with its famous carved crosses, the double entrance reminds a person that by faith one physically enters the crucifixion scene, either as one of the thieves, or as Mary and John, or both. The cross is a door that opens onto new ways of experiencing the crucifixion and the life beyond it.
Even in two dimensions the cross has profound meaning. Often depicted at the top of a stairway, it reminds us that the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, running away from the consequences of what he had done, feeling isolated and afraid, fell asleep and dreamed of a stairway that reached from just nearby his head to heaven. Poised at the head of the stairs in these carvings, the cross is heaven and the door to heaven.
Frequently the cross is shown as a leafy, fruiting tree. Sometimes it is framed by four schematic rivers, reminding the viewer that God planted Paradise and set the tree of life in its midst. Choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead, humans lost access to immortality’s fruit, but now, humankind receives that fruit again through the cross. What was the tree of death is now the tree of life.
As the fruit of the tree of life, Jesus’ entire existence was lived for the cross. From the very beginning that expression of divine love and ultimate life was why he came. On narrative crosses, the lower register may show the nativity, while the cross in the upper register shows the meaning, completion, or eternal reality of that event. In the example shown here, the cross is flanked by six stars; the six days of creation culminate in the day of divine rest, the once and future day of humanity in Paradise.
A khachkar carved for Prince Gregory Broshian in 1233 makes a complex statement about the eternal life of Paradise, and how Gregory expected to get there. This cross is framed in eternity symbols. Masses of foliage and huge clusters of grapes burst from its top. Gregory is framed in its roots, which form the gate to Paradise where Gregory is entering after literally fighting the good fight, as his arms and armor indicate. Christ, seated at the very top, awaits him.
Representations of Christ on the cross are less common. One striking example is shown here. A nested set of crosses is carved on a cruciform stone. The cross flourishes; the vine is luxuriant and the buds are fat. At the foot of the cross is the head of Adam, sheltered by the roots of the vine. At the top of the cross is the haloed head of Christ, “the new Adam”, the new prototype of humanity, whose body is the cross itself. In this carving, Christ’s identification with the cross is complete. The joining of heaven and earth, the creation of a new humanity is His essence. Christ and the cross are one, never to part. For the person who carved this, to eat Christ’s body in holy communion is to take into oneself his cross.
May we as Adam’s present children be sheltered at the foot of our cross, whatever it is. May it come to be our reality. Through it may we in all our experiences of death also experience what it means to become part of the new humanity intended by God from the beginning. As the Jerusalem Patriarch from whom I quoted earlier said, Let us not live with the cross as if it were an object on a wall, or even an object of meditation, but as our own, now.