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April 14, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Was Adam buried at the foot of Christ's cross?

Artistic incidentals can tell us the stories of our faith

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

What do a skull and crossbones have to do with Christ's Paschal Mystery?

As we approach Holy Week, we focus upon the cross of Christ. But there are many forms of the cross -- from plain crosses to resurrection crosses to the traditional crucifix. I was surprised to find that, not long ago, one of the traditional forms of the crucifix included a skull and bones at the foot of the cross, such as seen in the rosary crucifix on this page.


I found several possible explanations. One is simply that the skull visually represents the word "Calvary." Calvary (Calvaria) was the Roman word for the place of execution outside Jerusalem's walls in Jesus' day. The Gospels tells us that Jews called the place "Golgotha," meaning "Skull Place." In Greek, the first written language of the New Testament, Golgotha was translated "Kranios," a word similar to our "cranium."

Now, Golgotha was called Skull Place for a few reasons. One, it was the Roman place of execution for criminals. It may also have been a Jewish place of execution, since Mosaic law ordered that stoning be done outside the city walls (Num 15:36). The ever-practical Romans would have used a traditional execution place.

Second, "Skull Place" may also have referred to a cemetery. Excavations within the Holy Sepulchre show that there were first-century tombs located around Christ's tomb. And John's Gospel tells us that Jesus was laid in a nearby new tomb.

So the skull and crossbones on crucifixes may simply symbolize the geography of Calvary.

However, when you explore Russian icons, and look a little at Jewish tradition, you find even more. Russian icons (dating to at least 1500 and based on earlier Byzantine icons) depict Christ's cross standing atop a cave. Christ's blood runs down into the cave and falls upon a skull inside.

This skull, in Rusian iconography, is that of Adam. The icons depict an early Christian belief that Calvary was near Adam's tomb. In the Holy Sepulchre, one floor down from the altar of the crucifixion is the tiny Chapel of Adam. The split in the rock of Calvary runs directly to this chapel -- and tour guides insist that Adam's skull was exposed by the earthquake. The pope visited the chapel briefly on his recent Holy Land tour.

Whether true or not, the belief that Adam was buried near Calvary is quite old: St. Jerome refers to it in a letter from 386 AD.

Interestingly, Jewish traditions also says Adam's skull was buried near Jerusalem by Noah's son, Shem, and guarded by Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) at the time of Abraham (Ex. 14:18).

So the skull and bones on our crucifixes may also represent Adam. Outside of being extremely interesting, and completely unproveable, why should this be important?

Because of what Adam's skull, paired with the cross, remind us of about reconciliation -- how humanity was reconciled with God, through the loving act of God himself at Calvary. The skull and bones remind us that:

* The redemption brought by Christ's death and resurrection is universal. On the fifth Sunday of Lent, we heard Jesus say: "I -- once I am lifted up from the earth -- will draw everyone to myself (Jn. 12:32). "Everyone" means just that -- everyone. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that Christ died for all people "without exception. 'There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer'" (no. 605).

Seeing the skull of Adam at the cross, we remember that the salvation is offered to every person who ever lived. Even Adam, through whom sin entered the world, is redeemed through Christ's passion, death and resurrection. Writing in the second century, St. Ireneaeus said that most especially Adam, who was created in God's own image, must have been saved. And, if Adam, then everyone.

This should comforts us since we share in "the fall of Adam." We also act in ways contrary to the gifts we receive through God's love -- we sin. The Catechism tells us that, through the "unity of the human race," we all share in the sin of Adam which caused us to lose the "original holiness and justice Adam received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings" (CCC. 404, 416). We all do things that turn us away from holiness. Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer, SJ, says that sin (human actions) -- since the beginnings of history -- has "estranged us from the intimate presence of God" and deprived us of our destiny.

* What was lost has been found. Through the total self-giving of Jesus, we have been returned from that lost state of estrangement. This is the second thing that a skull at the foot of the crucifix means. While Jesus died for all -- he also died for each one of us, individually. As noted above by the Catechism, there is not one of us that Jesus did not die for. We are all important in the scheme of salvation.

*"The gift is not like the offense" (Rom. 5:10). While our acts separate us from God -- just like Adam's sin separated him from God -- Christ's love more than repairs the rift. "If death began its reign through one man ... much more shall those who receive the overflowing grace and gift of justice live and reign through the one man, Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:10-17). Sin made be individual, but salvation is universal -- first to last, least to greatest. As Pope John Paull said in his Good Friday homily last year, "the crucified Christ reveals in a striking way the Father's infinite mercy for human beings in all ages."

*We have become reconciled with God. Adam's act -- prefiguring our own indvidual, sinful acts -- brought death. Fr. Fitzmyer says the death of sin includes spiritual death: "the definitive separation of human beings from God, the unique source of life." But Christ, the new Adam, brought reunion with that source of life and love that is God. Through the power of his death and resurrection, we received the power to realize our original destiny: to be forever at one with God.

Vatican II, in "The Church in the Modern World" said, "He (Christ) who is the 'image of the invisible God' is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare" (Chap. 1, 22).

When we look at the cross with Adam's skull, we remember that we are the image of Adam -- both the old Adam and the New Adam.

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; "Gaudium et Spes"; The Catholic Encyclopedia; An Introduction to the New Testament; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; "L'Osservatore Romano; and "Against Heresies")

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