At the center of Christian vision and imagery stands a great and enigmatic sign, the sign of the Cross. Like the brass serpent held aloft on a pole by Moses in the desert, the Cross has drawn and fixed the gazes of men ever since it was raised. It is there at the center of Christian vision because it is there at the center of the divine drama celebrated in that vision—the drama unfolded on the stage of our history in the sequence of Annunciation, Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. And, like all these mighty mysteries in this sequence, the Cross defies all our efforts to grasp its full significance, and all our attempts to respond adequately. Shall we approach in sackcloth or in festal garments? Shall we sing songs of penitence or of triumph? Shall we bring ashes or garlands?

The difficulty we mortal men have in the presence of the events that make up the Gospel is that, while the events themselves are straightforward enough for any peasant to understand (the angels appeared to shepherds), the significance of those events exhausts the efforts of the most sublime intellects to grasp them. The plain gospel story is told, century after century, to peasants, children, and philosophers, and calls forth adoration and faith from all alike. The stable, the upper room, the garden, the cross, the tomb, and so forth: these are points in a tale that is plain enough for all of us. But they are also points on the frontier between the seen and the unseen, the historic and the eternal, the contingent and the unconditioned, and hence open out onto vistas where the divine immensities loom in all their terror and splendor.

For this reason, the Cross, which is a clear enough object, attracts the unceasing efforts of human intellect, ...

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