Over the Christmas break, our eldest, home from university, was wrestling with a couple of essays. I was called on to proof read each draft and give feedback. One was an Old English task, looking at three texts, one of which was the poem “The Dream of the Rood.”
The poem tells the story of a vision or dream the narrator has of the Cross, the Rood of the title. In the dream the Cross is the main character and talks to the poet. Christ is a hero, standing in the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code. He is brave, strong and willingly takes on battles for the sake of his people. The Crucifixion here is a battle with evil, not unlike Beowulf’s battle with Grendal. In the poem the Cross observes:
“The young hero stripped himself – he, God Almighty –
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.”
The Cross is like Christ’s faithful retainer, as Sam is to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. It battles along side the hero:
“I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together”
And so the story is told. Christ battles and dies. He is taken down by his Thanes (the disciples) who also honour the cross. As we expect Christ is raised, returns to heaven and will come again.
In reading and re-reading the poem, I was struck by two things. First is the portrayal of Christ. As modern readers, we have access to many different realistic, historically accurate portrayals of the Passion and in each one the power of Christ’s act on the cross comes through. However The Dream of the Rood reveals another facet. Here we are given something of the spiritual reality that goes on underneath. Christ comes to defeat evil, death and sin. He faces them and fights the battle. It is an act of strength and bravery, willingly taken and, in the end there is glory. All of this is done for his people, defeating death that they may live.
Second, I was struck by the process the Cross itself goes through. It begins as a tree in the forest, chopped down and forced to be a cross by men. It is a transformation done by violence and against its will. Yet everything changes when the Rood encounters Christ. In that moment the Cross becomes Christ’s loyal and faithful retainer and supports him in the battle. It too experiences the nails and is drenched in the blood of the warrior. The fight was Christ’s, he the hero and the Cross experiences the suffering and remains loyal. There is a great love in the words the Rood speaks when Christ is taken down:
“Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,
with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,
lifted him from that grim torment.”
This process, from one who is made to take on a role to one who gladly endures all for the sake of the hero, who stands with the Wielder and remains loyal is one which is open to all, not just Crosses. As the Tridduum continues there is that possibility. We can choose to be the faithful retainer. It will cost us but there is love and glory at the end. This choice is there because the hero faces the battle willingly and out of love. He fights for his people, whatever the cost. In that there is something beautiful and transformative.