THE TAU CROSS
By Cliff Garvey
All around the world, the followers of Saint Francis wear the tau cross as a sign of their faith in the Poor Christ and their friendship with the Poor Man of Assisi. Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew Alphabet and it also means to mark. But what are the origins of the tau as a sign of Christian discipleship?
As a symbol of faith, the tau first appears in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel in which we hear the prophet say these haunting words: “The Lord cried aloud for me to hear: ‘Come, you scourges of the city!” With that I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate which faces the north, each with a destroying weapon in his hand. In their midst was a man dressed in linen with a writer’s case at his waist. They entered and stood beside the bronze altar. Then the Lord called to the man dressed in linen with the writer’s case at his waist, saying to him: ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and mark a tau on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced in their midst.’ To the others, I heard the Lord say: ‘Pass through the city after him and strike! Do not look on the people with pity or show mercy! Old men, youths and maidens, women and children, wipe them out! But do not touch anyone marked with the tau. Begin at my sanctuary.'”
This passage from Ezekiel then continues: “They began with the men, the elders, who were in front of the temple. ‘Defile the temple’, he said to them, ‘and fill the courts with the slain; then go out and strike in the city…’ Then the glory of the Lord left the threshold of the temple and rested upon the cherubim. These lifted their wings, and I saw them rise from the earth, the wheels rising among them. They stood at the entrance of the eastern gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was up above them. Then the cherubim lifted their wings, and the wheels went along with them, while up above them was the glory of the God of Israel (Ezekial 9:1-7; 10:18-22).”
This passage from the sacred scriptures is indeed scary! But it should not frighten the followers of Christ. For centuries, the tau cross has been a symbol of Christian discipleship. Tradition holds that Saint Anthony of Egypt (AD 251-356) bore a cross in the image of the tau on his habit. And in November 1215, while watching the deliberations of the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome, Saint Francis himself listened as Pope Innocent III raised the tau as a symbol of Christian faith and fidelity to the Church. The Holy Father declared: “The tau has exactly the same form as the Cross upon which our Lord was crucified on Calvary; and only those marked with this sign will obtain mercy after they have mortified their flesh and conformed their lives to the Crucified Savior.”
From that moment on, Saint Francis used the tau as the sign and symbol of his faith and the faith of his followers. Over the years, he painted on the walls of the caves and isolated huts where he retreated to pray. He signed documents with it; and he traced its form on the foreheads of those whom he blessed. In his famous last letter to Brother Leo, one of his most faithful friends and followers, Saint Francis writes: “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show his face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace! And may God bless you!” Saint Francis then sketched a profile of Brother Leo and drew the tau over it.
In our own time, Pope Francis reminds us that the Cross should not be seen only as an instrument of the Lord’s sacrifice and suffering. He says instead: “It is the sign of hope that does not let us down; and it tells us that not one tear, not one cry is lost, in God’s plan of salvation.” For more than eight hundred years, the tau cross has been the emblem of the worldwide Franciscan movement. And it endures as a powerful sign of grace, hope, joy, fraternity, perseverance, and peace. For vowed Franciscans and for Franciscans in Spirit like us, the tau cross represents our devotion to the Poor Christ. It also conveys our humble aspiration to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi who did his very best in thought, word, and deed to live the Gospel, share God’s love, and rebuild the Church. And so, we beg for the prayers of Saint Francis and we join with Pope Francis in asking Jesus to help us see the true way of the cross: the way of the poor, the way of the sick, the way of the lost, and the way of the left behind:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lord Jesus, help us to see in your Cross, all the crosses of the world:
The cross of people hungry for bread and for love;
the cross of people alone and abandoned even by their children and kin;
the cross of people thirsty for justice and for peace;
the cross of people who lack the comfort of faith:
the cross of the elderly who struggle under the weight of long years and loneliness;
the cross of migrants who find doors closed in fear and hearts armored by political calculations;
the cross of the little ones, wounded in their innocence and purity;
the cross of humanity that wanders in the darkness of uncertainty
and in the obscurity of temporary culture;
the cross of families split by betrayal,
by the seductions of the evil one, or by homicidal levity and selfishness;
the cross of consecrated people who tirelessly seek
to bring your light into the world and feel rejected, derided, and humiliated;
the cross of consecrated people who, along the way, have forgotten their first love;
the cross of your children, who while believing in you and seeking to live according to your word,
find themselves marginalized and rejected even by their families and their peers;
the cross of our weakness, our hypocrisy, our betrayals, our sins, and our many broken promises;
the cross of your Church, faithful to your Gospel,
but struggling to spread your love even among baptized people;
the cross of your Church, your Bride, that is constantly assailed from within and without;
the cross of our common home that is gravely withering before our selfish eyes,
blinded by greed and power.
Lord Jesus, revive us in the hope of resurrection
and of our definitive victory over all evil and death. Amen.
Finally, we pray together:
May the powerful intercession of Saint Francis of Assisi,
bearer of the sacred wounds, patron of peace, and wonder-worker,
bring us closer to Christ, closer to the Church, and closer to each other.
May the humble prayers of Saint Francis of Assisi,
patron of the poor, friend of the forgotten,
and defender of all creatures, great and small,
comfort us, empower us, and protect us
as we strive to live the Gospel, share God’s love, and rebuild the Church.
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to A Sign of Hope: The Tau Cross. The Assisi Project Podcast is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (see links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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