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By Theodore Gill
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The gift of a cross: symbolism is rich at opening prayer service



Receiving the cross

By Theodore Gill

The wood of olive trees uprooted near Bethlehem during the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis is transformed into an emblem of hope and reconciliation.

On the shore of the Aegean Sea, a small craft delivered a cross of olive wood from Bethlehem at morning prayer on the first day of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) near Athens. It came as a gift from the Christian churches of Jerusalem, a reminder of the birthplace of Christianity and the contemporary struggles of the people there. An ecumenical delegation from Jerusalem also presented cross-shaped pendants for each participant. The crosses, large and small, had been fashioned from olive trees uprooted in and around the city of Bethlehem, from Palestinian land that was confiscated as barriers were constructed.

As the cross was lifted ashore, a throng of worshippers greeted the delegation from Jerusalem with liturgical chants and litanies, and then processed behind the cross from the seashore to the worship tent, singing a song based on the CWME theme, "Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile!"
The Right Rev. Riah Abu Al-Assal, Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, brought greetings from the Christians of the Holy Land as well as "from all who are working to make peace in the Middle East".

Bishop Al-Assal presented the cross as "the symbol of our salvation, our redemption. Even among the many different traditions of Christianity, I can find no Christian controversy about it. We agree that through the cross, through pain, through suffering and death, God in Jesus Christ reconciled the world to himself. And God has entrusted us with a wonderful ministry of reconciliation. Our mission and evangelism will never be realized until we achieve reconciliation, with God and among ourselves."

He warned against a naïve peacemaking that fails to recognize the importance of struggling against evil and seeking justice. But "in struggling against the powers of evil," the bishop concluded, "we need always to resort to the weapons of God, never to the weapons of the evil-doers. Otherwise, we will be defeated."

As olive oil was used to illuminate a traditional lamp in the tent, worship leader Ruth Bottoms, an ordained Baptist minister from the United Kingdom and moderator of the conference, recalled the olive branch borne to Noah by a dove, and the oil of anointing that served as a biblical sign of God's power in healing and reconciliation.
The symbolism of the olive tree is rich in Jewish and Christian tradition, yet it is also significant in the pre-Christian culture of Athens. Classical mythology holds that Athena became the patron goddess of the city through the gift of an olive tree, which remains the emblem of Athens to this day. The history of Christian mission preserves many such examples of the transformation of religious imagery.

As the CWME gathers in prayer this week at the foot of the Bethlehem cross, they bear witness to the potential for transformation symbolized in a cross of olive wood: from brutal uprooting to the healing of communities, from suffering to hope, from violent conflict to the possibility of reconciliation.

(*) Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva, Switzerland, and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
See full text of Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal's sermon