Christ’s Crowning Glory
Every Columbian has seen our University’s crest a thousand times. It is to be found on everything from that delightful admissions letter to the flags flapping above South Lawn to the 116th Gates. But how often do we really stop to think twice about what that image—the crown topped by a cross and flanked by two more—really means?
Symbols have power, a power to allude to rich depths of the past and to evoke aspirations for the future. Nike’s famous swoosh does both, looking progressive while alluding to the Greek goddess of victory. Sometimes the symbol transcends its own apparent nonsensicality—I have no idea what apples have to do with computers, but Apple’s logo commands respect the world over.
But symbols are more than brands. They can assemble armies and erect empires. Italy’s Fascists named themselves after the fasces—the bundles of axes that the consul’s bodyguards would carry in Classical Rome. It was a very deliberate statement of their intent to re-create the Roman Empire, with immediate and bloody consequences for Ethiopia and Albania.
Symbols are bound up with national identity, too. I have always thought it says much about the best of England, as a little country that has stood alone against the world, that its flag is the Cross of St. George. It’s a reference to the legend of the plucky knight who overcame a dragon much too big for him. It stands for life out of death, for hope out of despair, for the triumph of the underdog.
One reason, I think, why we don’t usually make the effort to decipher the Crown and Cross of Columbia is that it alludes to unfashionable ideals. We are 21st-century people, raised to believe in individual liberty and free choice. And that freedom is not directed to anything higher than consumerism. The Supreme Court stated in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In popular culture, the Backstreet Boys put it, “I Want It That Way.” Modern Western and particularly American culture has enshrined the view that we are fundamentally consumers who should be liberated to choose the goods, values, and lifestyles we want for our comfort.
The Crown and Cross crest suggests a different vision entirely. Most directly, it refers to Columbia’s founding as an Anglican college: the fruit of a Christian Church under the British monarch. It reflects the assumption that reigned in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment: the highest spiritual and political authorities in the land must be linked. The king has a responsibility to direct his people towards the good, and the Church must provide spiritual guidance to the people and moral correction to the king.
This political theory neglected religious liberty and democracy, and its failings helped provoke the American Revolution. But the Founding Fathers did not reject the Crown and Cross’ assertion that we all have a claim on each other, a shared responsibility for a good life together as a community.
For the Crown and the Cross stem from something much older and deeper and grander than the reign of George II, who was King when Columbia was founded in 1754. The Crown and Cross allude to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Paradoxically, his cosmic rule was declared when He was humiliated on Good Friday and vindicated on Easter as God raised Him to new life. And his reign over the world will be fully realized on that day when, as the Nicene Creed says, “He will come again in glory.” That is why Advent, the season of the church year leading up to Christmas, both celebrates the baby who came in the manger and prays all the more fervently the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”
The New Testament story is the story of the Crown and Cross, and it radically reshapes our understanding of freedom and of power. Philippians 2:5-11 tells us that Jesus, co-eternal Son of the Father, had the most absolute power of any being ever in existence. Free to do anything he wanted, he gave up his majesty out of love for us. Yet his utter self-gift revealed his true glory, his radically generous love.
This is why cultures that Christianity has influenced have had their understanding of kingship radically reworked. If Jesus’ kingly authority flows from his sacrifice, power is never something to grasp but to use in generous service. C.S. Lewis put the ideal best at the end of The Horse and His Boy. “For this is what it means to be a king: To be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land, to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in the land.”
Our modern Western culture has a particularly hard time with the Crown and the Cross. But no people or time has ever had an easy time applying Jesus’ story.
Classical culture did not understand being human in terms of consumerism. The Greeks and Romans believed in an objective good life to be found through the heroic pursuit of virtue. But, for Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, virtue was supremely moderation—restraint, a sense of balance, rational control in all things. Cicero, in his De Amicitia (“On Friendship”), argued that you could only befriend someone who was equally virtuous. You could never relate to someone who might not have everything together.
The ancient Chinese Confucian philosophers also aspired to impeccable standards of virtue. But Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi also understood the good life—a life of freedom and meaning—as one of self-possession. They did emphasize how very much we need and are shaped by our communities, our cultures, and especially our families. But ultimately the junzi (noble person) was to possess him or herself through reason and the cultivation of virtue.
Jesus modeled for us a radically different nobility. He taught us that we ultimately flourish not through responsibility and restraint but through giving ourselves to serve others for and from a joyful love.
Though this is deeply counter-intuitive, it can and does resonate with our experience. Many of us have known a paradoxical joy in volunteering with the needy. Neither patiently working through a math problem with a child in an afterschool program nor helping to feed and clothe a homeless man looks enjoyable from the outside. But there is a deep blessedness and peace that comes from loving people who are hard to love.
Families work on this principle too. We do not love our siblings because they merit our love. They are ours, and we must accept them, whatever painful memories or accumulated resentments lie between us. And if we love them and they love us no matter what, all sorts of joyful memories can sprout and we have space for our characters to grow.
And any married couple who have lived out their vows will testify to this. There will come days when one’s spouse seems the least lovable person on the planet. But that’s precisely why St. Paul called marriage a “mystery” in Ephesians 5 and called on husbands to give their lives to love their wives.
As Christian Columbians, the beauty of the college’s Crown and Cross crest is that it reminds us, as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 teaches, “You are not your own. You were bought with a price.” We have been shown kingly majesty and humble sacrifice in the Cross of Christ. Now we are called to find lives of true freedom in taking up our own crosses and following Him.Tags: academia, academiae, Aristotle, Cicero, Columbia University, Confucius, consumerism, CS Lewis, ducation, Easter, family, friendship, history, hope, joy, love, paradox, philosophy, politics