When I was upstairs in one of our bedrooms the other day I found a cross that Peter was given for his Confirmation. It reminded me of something I’d completely forgotten, that I too was given a cross when I was confirmed, many years ago. It was a simple silver cross which I wore around my neck on a very thin silver chain. Being very thin, it wasn’t very long before the chain broke, and I remember getting another one, which eventually broke as well. I gave up with crosses at that point, until I was ordained and bought one to put on my desk.
The cross that Peter was given was rather different - it was a “holding cross”, which was given to him by one of his godparents. I’m pretty sure that it was the first holding cross I’d ever seen, and I thought it was a lovely idea to have something so tactile.
I expect that most of you will know what a holding cross is, and some of you will possibly have one and use one - but, in case you don’t, let me explain a little. It’s designed to be a cross that you can hold easily and comfortably in your hand as you pray. A good one will fit snuggly into your hand - hence it’s not quite symmetrical, and will have smooth and rounded edges.
Holding crosses can be made out of all sorts of different types of wood, but they’re often made from olive wood, and many are made from the area around Bethlehem, in the region where Jesus was born. Olive trees have a not insignificant place in the Christian tradition, and are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. The olive’s first mention comes in Genesis, as providing the leaf brought back by the dove and given to Noah, and green olive trees are mentioned positively by both the psalms and Jeremiah. Jesus often visits the Mount of Olives in the Gospels, a mountain range named after the olive groves that used to cover its slopes. There are poignant references to it regarding the night of his passion, with the garden of Gethsemane being situated at the foot of it. In the life of the church, olive oil is what is traditionally used to anoint the sick.
The origin of the holding crosses that are produced in some abundance today is a bit vague, but people are known to have been carving branches thinned from olive trees since at least the fourth century. Of the plethora of websites advertising holding crosses - including our own retreat centre at Holland House - many are made from olive wood, and many come from the Bethlehem area, which gives a lovely connection with the origins of our faith.
A holding cross can be used to give focus to our prayers, or simply as something meaningful to hold on to in times of need. For someone who may be going through a hard time, it’s a powerful reminder that we are not alone in our suffering.
As the Cross has a particular focus in our worship on Good Friday, I’ve bought a bag of small holding crosses made from olive wood, and handcrafted in Bethlehem, for our services on Good Friday this year. Those coming in the morning will be invited to take one home, and those coming in the afternoon will be invited to hold one during the service as we focus on Jesus’ last words from the cross, and also to take that same cross home. I hope these will give a focus to our worship and to our remembrance of what Jesus went through out of his love for us.