The Cross in Chiasmus and Ring Composition: Some Notes

I’m loving the responses to the ‘What are you reading?’ question below! Thank you all for writing in about your book stacks. The diversity and depth of the lists confirm my suspicion that the HogPro gang are are a group of serious readers, as advertised.

As most of you know, I’m guessing, from older posts, my literary researches recently are focusing on ‘Ring Composition’ which is the fictional shadow of Biblical and Patristic chiasmus. Mary Douglas, the noted anthropologist, wrote a book on this, Thinking in Circles, which, with Lund’s book on chiasmus in the New Testament and Welch’s books on chiasmus in antiquity, has been my introduction and guide on the subject. As we’ve been exploring here for some time, it seems the science fiction fantasy novels of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams may be ‘rings’ of parallel analogies as are the most recent blockbusters Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games.

Once a reader puts on these glasses and learns to recognize chiasmus, of course, it’s hard not to imagine it everywhere. The seven days after Pascha are known as Bright Week and traditional Christians celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection by chanting the Paschal Hours through that time. One of the prayers sung again and again is ‘The Hymn of the Resurrection’ that is first chanted during the services for Pascha and then throughout Paschaltide. I believe it to be a Ring or chiasmus composition, and, below, I chart it for your review with some notes on the ring nature of Christian soteriology and some brief thoughts, guesses really, about why this is so.

I think it has a great deal to do with why this story scaffolding has the power it does, why, as Douglas argues, it is the universal story form. It is, of course, an explicitly Christian argument and not directly related to discussion of popular fiction, so I urge those not interested in that sort of discussion to not enter into it. We’ll return to our regular programming tomorrow with some thoughts on Suzanne Collins’ ring markers in her Underland Chronicles!

Below is the ‘Hymn of the Resurrection’ broken down into the chiasmus a-b-c-b-a form I hear now when my wife Mary and the children sing the Hymn during Paschal Hours:

(A) Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One.

(B) We worship Thy Cross, O Christ, and Thy holy Resurrection we hymn and glorify:

(C) for Thou art our God, we know none other beside Thee, we call upon Thy name.

(B) O come all ye faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection, for behold through the Cross joy hath come to all the world.

(A) Ever blessing the Lord, we hymn His Resurrection; for having endured crucifixion, He hath destroyed death by death.

Three Ring notes:

  • Every verse except the middle mentions “Resurrection” so that word itself is not a point of parallelism except in its absence at the center line.
  • The first and last parts of the Hymn “worship” and “bless” the Lord specifically with mentions of His Resurrection and the second and fourth “worship” and “glorify” the Resurrection and the Cross, both in reflective inversion (i.e., Resurrection/Lord then Lord/Resurrection, and Cross/Resurrection then Resurrection/Cross).
  • The central verse points to the centrality of the one God, our unity in Him, and the centrality of invocation for this communion; as St. John Chrysostom writes in his commentary on St. Peter’s reading of Joel’s “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21), “in the invocation is the salvation” (Homily V on Acts 2).

I’d note, too, that the closing note, the destruction of “death by death” is both a chiasm and palindrome of sorts, closing the circle of the Hymn with the salvific circle of the Lord’s elision of the Fall’s willing sin of eating a Tree’s fruit with His willing sacrifice as the fruit of another Tree.

But you learn by experience that our survival forever comes from His greatness, not from our nature, so that we may neither ignore the glory that surrounds God as He is nor be ignorant of our own nature, but may see what God can do, and what man receives as a gift from Him, and so may not wander from the true conception of the reality of things with reference to both God and man… He by His obedience on the tree renewed and reversed what was done by disobedience in connection with a tree; and the power of that seduction by which the virgin Eve, already betrothed to a man, had been wickedly seduced was broken, when the angel in truth belonged to a man. For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against His word, so Mary by the word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying His Word.

St. Iranaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 2, 19 (quoted in Manley’s The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, p. 28)

Christian soteriological history, then, not surprisingly in a faith largely about paradoxes or simultaneous-contraries (God-Man, Virgin-Mother, Alive-Having-Died), can be understood chiastically, as can the Christian ‘walk:’

Paradoxically – or rather, in the language of the Fathers, “antinomically” – His power is revealed through self-abasement, suffering and death, just as those who assume His ministry of reconciliation will be called to manifest their strength through weakness (IICor. 12:10)…

Ultimately, proclamation and celebration of the Word must resolve into silence. This characteristically orthodox intuition is rooted in the apostolic witness and elaborated most fully in “hesychasm,” the interior pilgrimage charted by the spiritual tradition of the Philokalia…At the heart of this “way that leads to silence” [i.e. hesychasm] is the voluntary self-abasement known as “kenotic obedience.” In Christian existence it reflects the attitude of the Baptist before the mystery of the incarnate Logos: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30). This attitude of humble self-effacement, however, is itself the reflection of Christ’s own “kenosis”, the obedient self-renunciation that He willingly assumes as the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Archpriest John Breck, The Power of the Word in the Worshiping Church, pp 16-17, cited in Manley, op.cit., p. 32

To incarnate God’s speech or living Word, the Principle that “fillest all things” as the fabric of reality, inside greater than outside, and cause of everything existent, we must empty ourselves and “decrease” that He “may increase,” that is, become greater within us as members of His mystical body. To have an infinite fullness and life begins with an ascetic self-emptying death to self or ego, taking up the cross; For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it (Mark 8:35, see also Luke 9:24, 17:33 and Matthew 16:25).

As Schuon comments, “To love God does not mean to cultivate a sentiment – that is to say, something which we enjoy without knowing whether God enjoys it – but rather to eliminate from the soul what prevents God from entering it” (Echoes of Perennial Wisdom, p. 5).

I suppose this might seem religious railing but I think there is a probable chiasmus and ring composition connection here. Remember the ‘X’ or chi in chiasmus is the crossing of terms in meaningful contrary fashion; think of JFK’s “Think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” or the comic “never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.” I think this literary symbolism has its power because of the center defined by a cross, hence Guenon’s assertion in The Symbolism of the Cross that the Christ dies on the Cross at Calvary not just as a historical event but because of the metaphysical symbolism of the cross (pp 11, 13), its definition and revelation of the center.

The victory in Christ, won by His “having endured crucifixion” and our taking up our cross, is a chiasm of sorts, as well, because “crucifixion” can mean “having been made a Cross” in addition to “having been nailed to a cross.” The Cross Itself, as a revelation of the Center or Origin, is a chiasmus-picture of Christ the Logos as this metaphysical point without extension and creative moment without duration. Forgive me for suspecting that this is the meaning of the literary form and the reason for its ubiquity in scripture and theological writing, not to mention its power when used even in imaginative fiction that makes it almost a commonplace.

Again, Schuon: “In order to be happy, man must have a center; now this center is above all the certitude of the One. The greatest calamity is the loss of the center and the abandonment of the soul to the caprices of the periphery. To be man is to be at the center; it is to be center” (op.cit, p 5).

And Gandhi: “Living Christ means a living cross, without it life is a living death.”

The story circle, be it chiasmus or ring, is an experience of this center of the living cross, which “inside” defines and causes all things “outside.”

Back to the stories tomorrow with some thoughts on Suzanne Collins’ central chapters in her five 27 part books, The Underland Chronicles (and what this suggests about The Hunger Games’ structures). Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted.


  1. The Hymn of the Resurrection in Greek with interlinear English translation for comparison:

    Ἀνάστασιν Χριστοῦ θεασάμενοι,

    Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ

    προσκυνήσωμεν ἅγιον, Κύριον,

    let us worship the holy Lord

    Ἰησοῦν τὸν μόνον ἀναμάρτητον.

    Jesus, the only Sinless One.

    Τὸν Σταυρόν σου Χριστὲ προσκυνοῦμεν

    We worship Thy Cross, O Christ,

    καὶ τὴν ἁγίαν σου Ἀνάστασιν
    ὑμνοῦμεν καὶ δοξάζομεν·

    and Thy holy Resurrection we hymn and glorify:
    σὺ γὰρ εἶ Θεὸς ἡμῶν,

    for Thou art our God,

    ἐκτὸς σοῦ ἄλλον οὐκ οἴδαμεν,

    we know none other beside Thee,

    τὸ ὄνομά σου ὀνομάζομεν.

    we call upon Thy name.

    Δεῦτε πάντες οἱ πιστοὶ προσκυνήσωμεν
    τὴν τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἁγίαν ἀνάστασιν·

    O come all ye faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection,

    ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἦλθε διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ
    χαρὰ ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ.

    for behold through the Cross joy hath come to all the world.

    Διὰ παντὸς εὐλογοῦντες τὸν Κύριον,

    Ever blessing the Lord,

    ὑμνοῦμεν τὴν ἀνάστασιν αὐτοῦ·

    we hymn His Resurrection;

    Σταυρὸν γὰρ ὑπομείνας δι᾿ ἡμᾶς,

    for having endured crucifixion [for us[

    θανάτῳ θάνατον ὤλεσεν.

    He hath destroyed death by death.

    The Greek confirms the chiasmus reading in English.

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