The Tau Cross: a revolutionary response to goodness

The Tau Cross: a revolutionary response to goodness

by Laura Nettles, FSPA     
There is, perhaps, no greater or more recognizable symbol for Franciscans than the image of the Tau Cross. Early biographies tell us that Francis favored this cross above all others. Celano wrote: “[Francis] favored the sign of the Tau over all other [crosses]. With it alone he signed letters he sent and painted it on the walls of cells everywhere.” The Tau became, for Francis and his followers, an external representation of the very core of their Franciscan life.

Francis, however, was not the originator of this symbol. Though there are several Tau references in Scripture and the writings of early Church Fathers (see Ezekiel 9:4 and St. Antony of Egypt), the most recognizable reference to the Tau (aside from Francis) was its use by Pope Innocent III in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Coinciding with the major themes of the council, the Tau was to be used as a sign of the Eucharist, a sign of conversion, and a symbol of the Crusades. It was marked on the clothing of the crusaders. We can say with a fair degree of certainty that the conciliar prominence given to the Tau influenced Francis’ own use of this symbol.

To those who know Francis’ mission and vision, it is easy to see how his use of the Tau would converge with the first two objectives of the council. But what about the last? Why would Francis use a symbol that had been appropriated for the Crusades? To answer this question we must understand what this symbol meant to Francis. 

First, the Tau was a sign of personal conversion — a deliberate choice to follow the life and teachings of Jesus as expressed in the Gospel. At the heart of the Gospels is the fundamental belief that all human beings, having been created out of God’s abundant goodness and love, have an inviolable dignity and worth. This dignity creates a relational solidarity among all of God’s creation that affirms the collective goodness of humanity. Thus for Francis, and explored by Father Michael Cusato in his article “To Do Penance,” a life of conversion meant continually choosing to live in a way that recognized the sacred dignity and universal fraternity of all. The Tau becomes the symbolic reminder of this.

Second, the Tau was a symbol of a deliberate life of penance. Francis understood sin to be the disruption or breach of sacred fraternal relationships. He believed that any actions, attitudes and behaviors that threatened these bonds were inherently sinful. Francis suggested that the way to overcome these sins was to engage in a type of penance which required both an external action (turning away from sin) and an internal change of heart (metanoia). The Tau then becomes a vivid reminder that one must continually choose to turn away from sin by turning toward God and the fraternal relationships that God has ordained. 

Finally, the Tau was the ultimate symbol of God’s love and healing — the cross of Christ. Christ showed his followers how to live and love in the context of right relationships. Jesus’ very way of life demonstrated the way to promote human dignity while fostering the bonds of respect among humans. And while Jesus would be crucified in an extreme violation of dignity and broken relationships, his refusal to return violence for violence became the ultimate act of love and restoration. Francis called upon his followers to embrace and emulate this paradoxical way of life. Thus, as a Franciscan symbol, the Tau stands as a reminder that we are called to find love in the hate, beauty in the mess, goodness in the profane, and the potential in the problem.

As to the question of why Francis would willingly adopt a symbol associated with the antithesis of his usage, we must acknowledge that Francis never wrote about the Crusades nor did he associate the Tau with the crusaders. Further, he demonstrated time and again that war was an ugly and vile testament to the failure of humans to live as God intended. In fact, Francis went out of his way not to associate the Tau with the Crusades and was deliberate in his efforts to re-appropriate its meaning. 
But rather than reject the Tau, Francis skillfully used this symbol as a reminder that we are called to affirm the innate goodness of God’s creation by engaging in relationships that pledge nonviolent living for the sake of our human family. He refused to accept the distortion of this symbol and actively worked to boldly proclaim its true meaning. The Tau stood, and continues to stand, as a revolutionary response to a culture of reactive fear and dehumanizing violence. 

The Tau Cross is featured in the “A Revolution of Goodness” designed for the FSPA 2018 Mission Assembly. The cross, as described by Sister Laura, is a reminder of the innate goodness of God’s creation, is positioned next to a heart (also a symbol of goodness) and designed inside colorful ripples. The ripples represent the goodness that will flow from the assembly to the world over the next four years.

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