Flowering crosses point to a new day
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
Last Easter, I drove by the church I once served and slowed down. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The wooden cross my father had made was standing on the weathered stairs bursting with colorful flowers. They had never placed the cross outside before, but now there it was, and it made me smile. In my time there as pastor, I had wanted the chicken wire-wrapped cross so that I could introduce the congregation to the tradition known as the “flowering of the cross.”
It’s a tradition where on Easter morning, a barren wooden cross is transformed into a symbol of new life by the adorning of flowers, thus the chicken wire to hold the stems in place. The exact origins of the flowering of the cross cannot be pinpointed to any one denomination nor any specific time in history, except that references to flowering crosses began appearing in art as early as the sixth century. Some say, too, that perhaps the flowering of the cross has its genesis in a legend where it is said that the tears Mary shed at the foot of Jesus’ cross miraculously turned into flowers. I learned about the flowering of the cross while working for an Episcopal diocesan newspaper. After Easter Sunday, I discovered my editor’s inbox flooded with pictures of flowering crosses submitted by pastors and church secretaries. I was curious and captivated — and committed to bringing this tradition to my someday congregation.
On a cold and gray New England Easter morning, that someday congregation was introduced to the flowering cross, also referred to as “the living cross.” With the first soaring notes of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” the black fabric draping the cross on Good Friday was removed. Children then clambered to the front of the sanctuary and proceeded to decorate every inch of the cross with the flowers that were placed in baskets. By the time the congregation finished singing, the cross — the emblem of suffering and shame, as the old hymn tells us — was now the emblem of redemption and hope.
I looked at the flowering cross now standing on the steps of the church that, like many others, had to forgo Easter worship as they knew it because of a coronavirus that had begun sweeping the country as the 2020 Lenten season began. I had wondered if they still used the cross as part of their Easter proclamation. They did. And now, in a time of COVID-19, someone had the idea of bringing the flowering cross outdoors so that the community could see and be touched with the Easter message: All is not lost.
This little church in upstate New York was not the only one with a flowering cross sitting on its lawn. In Owensboro, Kentucky, First Presbyterian Church erected its first flowering cross in 2020. According to Jeff Moles, director of Christian education and mission, offering the flowering cross was “a meaningful way for people to engage” with people driving by the church to drop off flowers that were added by church members. Other churches like Park Hill Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas, adapted the flowering of the cross to a paper flowering instead, said the Rev. Marie Mainard O’Connell. “We asked the congregation to color two or three different flowers and mail them to us. We then used them to build a flowered cross in our great window that faces the street,” she said.
The message of hope being alive and well is an Easter message still needed in 2021 as congregations face many uncertainties. And while worshiping in person in a sanctuary this year is still questionable, many churches will be returning to the tradition of the flowering of the cross as a way to not only share the good news of the resurrection, but as a way to connect with one another and the community.
A tradition is revived
The Rev. Audrey Reese was familiar with the flowering of the cross from the Methodist church of her childhood. “I really had fond memories of it,” she said. So, when she came to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Westminster, South Carolina, as pastor in 2013 and saw that the congregation already had a 12-foot cross on its property, she immediately thought of “flowering” it. At first there was some hesitancy, said Reese, as the early Easter that year meant that all the flowers would not yet be blooming. Reese recalls that Holy Saturday looking in her own yard wondering if her budding azaleas would be ready to be put onto the cross. The day eventually warmed up, though, and the buds flowered beautifully, she said.
The tradition of flowering the cross continued over the years, but, Reese says, it began to wane in 2018 and 2019. When COVID-19, though, led to the ban of group gatherings for Easter 2020, the flowering of the cross was viewed with new eyes. The pastor realized that the cross and the very act of inviting people to come by to “flower it” was a much-needed point of connection. Volunteers soon began gathering buckets and filling them up with flowers so that all in the community, not just church members, could come and place a flower on the cross. For Reese, the very act of collecting the flowers was an Easter miracle itself. “By Saturday afternoon we already had a lot of flowers available,” she said. Still, she wondered if they would have enough to adorn the cross. When Reese woke early Easter morning, the “church porch was filled with flowers.”
The flowering of the cross, Reese says, was the Easter 2020 blessing the small congregation of mostly 65 and older needed. “So many changes were thrust on them. This was one thing that stayed the same and brought them comfort,” she said. Reese herself remembers waking up on Easter with a heavy heart. “I was sad with everything changing and the isolation we were all feeling. But then we started bringing the cross to life with flowers just as the sun began rising. It was just gorgeous,” said Reese.
The Rev. Heather McIntyre of First Presbyterian Church of Wadesboro, North Carolina, had a similar experience. The church’s garden has a cross covered in chicken wire. Last Easter, McIntyre placed a music stand with a short prayer on it and some hand sanitizer near the cross. She invited families to come and add their flowers to the cross throughout the day. “I went over just before sunrise and used some palms to start the process of flowering the cross,” she said. As the day progressed, the cross got fuller with flowers. “It was beautifully moving to see how the cross got fuller and fuller throughout Easter day. I rarely saw anyone out there, but people obviously came and had their own quiet moments with the Risen Christ.”
Reese hopes that this Easter will be a hybrid model of both in-person worship and online. But whichever way worship will go, the “living cross,” as she calls it, will be part of Easter 2021 and she expects it to be just as vibrant as it was last year. As for the Easter hope she is looking forward to, she says it is the hope “that we are being made into a new creation.”
“A year has gone by and we are now living into this new reality. As tense and divided as our world might be, the living God is still alive. I hope this Easter as we flower the cross, a renewed faith in humanity emerges,” said Reese.
The Rev. Mark Plunkett of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Houston someday hopes to reclaim the tradition of flowering the cross that his congregation enjoyed a few years back when they had their own worship space. The congregation sold their property in 2012 and has since been meeting in a community center. Plunkett, though, remembers the wooden cross a congregant made, which weathered nicely over the years. If flowers weren’t blooming in time for Easter, Plunkett would go to the local flower shops and ask for donations. Many times, he says, they were more than willing to donate long-stemmed carnations. Even without a flowering cross this year to be a tangible reminder of hope, Plunkett is refusing to give into despair. “We have too many things around us telling us not to hope,” he said. “But what did those first Christians see? They, too, saw things that they just couldn’t process, yet they hoped. We’ve been here before. We have more reasons to hope for better things to come than we realize. That is what Easter 2021 is going to be all about for me,” said Plunkett.
Re-imagining the flowered cross
Hoping in better things to come was the idea behind the invitation Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, gave to its members last year to create their own version of a flowering cross at home. The Rev. Amanda Davee Lomax, who serves in campus ministry at Salem College and worships at Westminster, was excited. Her then-9-year-old son, Monroe Lomax, was even more so.
“It was such a joyful moment. We watch those trees bloom every year and are always so sad when the petals fall. We played with them like snow and then he took such care collecting the sticks for the outline and filling the cross with the petals. We loved having that reminder of resurrection in our yard to greet all of our neighbors on Easter morning,” she said. Flowering the cross is meaningful to Davee Lomax. When her aunt died of breast cancer, Davee Lomax brought some of the flowers from her Indiana garden back to North Carolina.
“Every year, those flowers are the first to bloom. I always remembered her putting agapanthus and lily of the valley on the Easter cross. Now I can do the same,” she said.
In Dunwoody, Georgia, the community where St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church resides had an Easter surprise in 2020. According to the Rev. Shannon L. Dill, associate pastor, the cross, which is traditionally flowered in the sanctuary, was brought outside with buckets of flowers and a sign inviting people to add a flower placed next to it. The church, Dill says, sits on one of the main streets in the community. “The response was amazing,” she added. To keep the message of hope going as long as possible, Dill remembers going to the church throughout the week to replenish the flowers that were fading and wilting. But that could only go on for so long. That’s when church leadership decided to keep the cross up but rather than decorating it with flowers, make available to the public prayer ribbons to tie on. “We turned the flowering cross into a prayer cross. It became a focal point in our community for people of all beliefs,” said Dill. The prayer cross became a wonderful way to usher in Pentecost in a time of COVID-19 as well. St. Luke’s Presbyterian plans to have a flowering cross for Easter 2021. “We like the idea of keeping the cross outside, but if we are back to in-person worship come Easter, we might have a cross inside as well,” said Dill.
Wherever the flowering cross will be, Dill is eager for Easter to come with its renewing hope for all whose hearts need renewing. Part of the hope she sees emerging this year is that the past year has been one of a “shared experience” not just dealing with a virus but with the ills of racial injustice. “We are coming to a place that all of us are realizing that we are on some spectrum of racism. I am hoping that this year, the promise of the resurrection will be our realization that we don’t have to be who we were, but that we can rise to that calling of being better — together,” said Dill. And as the flowers on the Easter cross fade and the prayer ribbons blow with the winds of Pentecost, the cross that stands outside of St. Luke’s Presbyterian echoes the sentiments of pastors like Dill: There is always hope beyond hope. That is the Easter message.
Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.
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