The Old Chocolate Cross?

(photo: Register Files)

It comes to my attention that a couple of weeks ago Melanie Bettinelli, a homeschooling mother of five who blogs at The Wine-Dark Sea, wrote a winsome essay in defense of chocolate crosses, which she was not quite surprised to learn some Christians consider offensive, even blasphemous.

“The cross should be venerated, not eaten, nor tossed casually in an Easter basket beside the jelly beans and marshmallow Peeps,” according to a diocesan spokesman requoted by Bettinelli from an article opposed to chocolate crosses. “It’s insulting.” Bettinelli then offers the following thoughtful reflections:

I wonder if he’d also find cross-shaped Easter breads insulting, or lamb-shaped cakes? There’s a long tradition in many cultures of forming food into crosses, not to venerate as we do with the crucifix at the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion but to act as a reminder, a symbol even to be included (and consumed) in our celebrations. Think of Italian St. Joseph altars with all the various shaped foods: Hammer and nail bread, cross cakes, pretzel and chocolate crowns of thorns, shepherd-hook bread, monstrance-shaped breads. Think of Polish Oplatki Christmas wafers with images of the Nativity on them that, according to tradition, “deliberately shadow the Eucharistic meal that Catholics participate in at each Mass.”

For that matter, she adds, what about hot cross buns, traditionally eaten in many parts of the English-speaking world on Good Friday itself?

Let me clarify from the outset that I don’t find chocolate crosses blasphemous or an abomination before the Lord. Insofar as Mrs. Bettinelli writes against Easter-basket Pharisaism, I’m most sympathetic to her case.

I might also add that on this Holy Saturday, in the silence between the commemoration of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday, there are better and more important things to think about than this burning question.

On the other hand, this space between Good Friday and Easter also perfectly encapsulates the disconnect, for me and others, between the Good Friday-ness of the cross and the Easter-ness of chocolate.

For what it’s worth, my sensibilities in this regard were informed at an early age by my father, a Reformed pastor in his day before he followed me into the Catholic Church.

No Easter-basket Pharisee, my father registered his low opinion of chocolate crosses not with condemnation but with mockery, singing a pair of amended lines from the old Methodist standard “The Old Rugged Cross”:

I will cling to the old chocolate cross / And exchange it one day for an eclair.

(Probably unknown to my father, Tom Waits had his own acerbic version of this theme, “Chocolate Jesus”; see below.)

As a Catholic convert, I have been taught by Catholic Eucharistic theology and spirituality that Christ the Lord is true food and true drink, and gives himself to us, specifically in his crucified glory, to eat and drink.

Yet I have also learned that he gives himself to us to eat as bread — that is, as a staple of daily life, as grain sown, harvested, broken, and baked, fruit of the earth and work of human hands. (Wine was likewise a daily staple at that time, and remains so in many places.) 

Chocolate is something very different from bread, even from the sweet bread of hot cross buns. Chocolate is a rich luxury, a delicacy, an extravagance, a savory indulgence. There is a reason Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, not our daily chocolate (or whatever the nearest first-century parallel might have been).

St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in Spain right around the first introduction of chocolate, has famously been credited, perhaps apocryphally, with the amazing words, “God and chocolate is better than just God.” Even if she didn’t really say it, there is probably a reason those words have been ascribed to her. To get away with saying a thing like that, it helps to be a) a saint, b) a mystic, c) a doctor of the Church, and d) a woman.

Yet whether or not it can safely be said that God and chocolate is better than just God, at any rate God and chocolate are very different things.

Chocolate might possibly have something to say to us of the ecstasy of heaven, and certainly it is widely associated the joy of Easter. That may be a Western cultural association, but for those of us who are Westerners it is our culture. In many Asian cultures white is a traditional color for mourning, but in the West it would be odd for a grieving widow to wear white to her husband’s funeral, just as it would for a bride to wear black to her wedding.

Cultural symbols may be relative and malleable, but they matter. Some symbols, moreover, are more obviously meaningful than others.

The cross is bitter. It represents death. It is a horror, and, if it is by grace the instrument of our salvation, it is grace at its most severe and excruciating. When Christ calls us to take up our cross, it is a call to suffering and death. 

Chocolate is not, in my opinion, well suited to addressing the dolorous passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. To carry one’s cross for Christ may be a privilege; we may even dare (not without fear and trembling) to call it, in a paradoxical, counterintuitive sense, a ”sweet” thing: but it is not a luxury, a decadence, or a treat.

My aversion to chocolate crosses came most clearly into focus during Holy Week of 2007 as a result of a media flap over a planned exhibition at a New York art gallery of an immense sculpture of Christ crucified rendered in over 200 pounds of milk chocolate. Titled “My Sweet Lord,” the six-foot sculpture was not exactly a cross or a crucifix, but depicted a naked, anatomically correct Christ cruciform, with the cross itself implied rather than represented.

The exhibition was canceled after the gallery and the hotel that housed it were flooded with angry phone calls and emails, not to mention public opposition from the likes of Cardinal Edward Egan (who called it a “sickening display”) and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League (who objected not only to “the ugliness of the portrayal” but also to the timing of Holy Week).

I’m not per se against religious art that is “sickening” or “ugly” — both adjectives some critics leveled, unjustly in my opinion, against Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There is a place in the world for sickening and ugly art, including sickening and ugly sacred art, and in Christian culture there is a long history of Passion-themed art that fits this description.

The problem, for me, is bringing the medium of chocolate to this project (and the fact that it was milk chocolate only makes it worse).

Two hundred pounds of chocolate connotes decadence, indulgence, delectation, surfeit. At best it is the joyous stuff of Easter, not the rigor of Good Friday. The contradiction of medium and message is as jarring as a Good Friday liturgy set to carnival music.

I’m ever so slightly reminded of a horrifying scene in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers in which the “Iwo Jima heroes” are fêted at a gala function where they are treated with vanilla ice-cream sculptures representing the familiar image of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima — ice-cream sculptures over which a blood-red cherry sauce is then poured.)

I don’t believe I would object to a symbolic representation of Jesus rendered in unconsecrated bread. It might even be profound.

But, please, chocolate for Easter.

That’s my take, anyway.

P.S. Lyrics to Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”

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