September 14, 2014
+ A few weeks ago in my sermon I started my sermon on a, shall we say, dire note. I don’t normally like starting my sermons on a such a note. Dire sermons are not always helpful sermons. But, I said, on that Sunday, that if you come into church and see red paraments—the red altar frontal, the red hangings, the red chasuble—be prepared. We are commemorating something not so pleasant. In that case, I was talking about martyrs.
This morning, we have the red on. No, we’re not commemorating a martyr. But, sadly, we are commemorating something not that pleasant either. This morning we are commemorating probably the one most important symbols of who we are as Christians. We are commemorating the Holy Cross.
My good friend, Father John-Julian of the Episcopal religious order, the Order of Julian or Norwich, writes about this very important feast in his wonderful book, Stars in a Dark World. He writes:
“It is noteworthy, I think, to see that the Church celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross not with the penitential purple of Lent or the mortal black of Good Friday, but with the brilliant passion red of celebration and honor! And the propers of this feast do not dwell on the bloody death of Christ but on rather upon the wonder of the utterly holy [instrument], because the executioner’s instrument has been exalted as the means of the salvation of the world. The salvic resurrection of Christ transformed the gross and ugly Cross of death into the most enduring symbol of life and hope.”
Now, we probably really think about the Cross as an object too often. We find of take it for granted. We see it every Sunday. We see them on the churches we pass every day. We probably wear the around our necks or hang them on the walls of our homes.
For us, of course, the Cross is more than just two pieces of wood bound together. For us the Cross is our symbol. And more than that.
We have essentially been branded with the cross. Each of us were marked by the Cross in our baptism. And as a result, it is ingrained into our very souls.
And we have been told by the One we follow that to truly follow him, we must take up our own cross. Again, not pleasant to do. But it is essential. This symbol of death and degradation has been given to us and we are told to bear it with all the strength and dignity we can muster, just as he did.
I’ve shared this quote with you before, but I love this saying by Blessed Charles Grafton, the former Bishop of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. He said that our job as Christians is to “preach the Cross from the Cross.”
It is not enough for us just to tell others about the Cross. It is not enough to just acknowledge this piece of wood as our symbol. Essentially in bearing the cross, we must realize that we are also bound to the cross, and there we die to our former selves—our egoistical selves, our self-centered selves. And while there, while we hang there with the One we follow, to preach—by example if nothing else. This is what the Cross is to us.
Look at how deceptively simple it is. It’s simply two pieces, bound together. For someone who knows nothing about Christianity, for someone who knows nothing about the story, it’s a symbol they might not think much about.
And yet the Cross is more than just another symbol in our lives. The Cross is what truly defines as Christians. Without it, we would be utterly lost. Without it, our faith as Christians would be essentially powerless. Our hope, our longing, for eternal life, for the destruction of death by Jesus, would never have been accomplished without it. Without it, we would still be digging in our heels in fear over death.
So, yes, the Cross is essential to us as Christians. It is what gives our faith its very essence. The Cross, as much as it defines us, as much as it is symbol of our faith, is also, sadly, an instrument of torture and death.
To take up a cross means to take up a burden that we must bear, even though we don’t really want it. To take it up is torturous. It hurts to take up the Cross. When we think of that last journey Jesus took to the place of the skull, carrying that heavy tree on which he is going to be murdered, it must’ve been more horrible than we can even begin to imagine. And, without the resurrection, it would have been.
But the fact is, what Jesus is saying to us is: carry your cross now. Carry it with dignity and inner strength. Because if you carry cross, then you are truly following Me. By carrying our cross, we are following Jesus to the place he leads. That place, is of course, the joy of Resurrection and Life.
But the road there leads first through the place of the skull. To face this reality, we find ourselves facing our fear of pain and death. We sometimes allow ourselves to slip deeply into fear and despair in our lives.
As we all know, fear can be crippling. It can devastate us and drive us to despair. But, as Father John-Julian says,
“In a sense, the Cross underwent the first transformation of the Resurrection; and that same transformation has been part of the salvation offered by the Crucified and Resurrected One. Pain and death became resurrection and exaltation—and that has never changed. The sign of the Christian’s salvation is not some giddy, mindless, low-cost bliss, but rather an entry into the deeper parts of the reality of pain and death [and I would add, fear], soaked, as was the Holy Cross, with the blood of sacrifice and finally emerged, brought by God on the other side, resurrected, exalted whole, and in heaven.”
If we take the crosses we’ve been given to bear and embrace them, rather than running away from them, we find that fear has no control over us.
The Cross destroys fear and pain and death. The Cross shatters pain and death into a million pieces. And when we do fear, we know we have a place to go to for shelter. When fear encroaches into our lives—when fear comes riding roughshod through our lives—all we have to do is go to the Cross and embrace it. And there, we will find our fears destroyed.
As Anthony of Padua said: "Extending his arms on the cross like wings, Christ embraces all who come to him sheltering then in his wounds.”
Because of the Cross, we are taken care of. Because of the Cross, we know, all will be well. The cross Jesus asks us to bear is not a frightening and terrible thing. It was, at one time. It was a symbol of defeat and death and pain and torture. It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, what the electric chair or the hangman’s noose or even the lethal injection table is to us this day. It was, for the people of Jesus’s day, a symbol of ultimate defeat. On it, hung criminals. On it, hung those who, by society’s standards, deserved to hang there. On it hung the blasphemer, the heretic, the agitator.
But now, for us, it is a symbol of strength and joy and unending eternal life. Through it, we know, we must pass to find true and unending life. Through the Cross, we must pass to find ourselves, once and for all time, face-to-face with God.
So, let us notice of this great symbol in our lives. As we drive along, let us notice the crosses on the churches we pass. Let us notice all the crosses that surround us. When you see the Cross, remember what it means to you.
Look to it for what it is: a symbol of terror and death, but also a symbol of the power of God to overcome terror and death. Let us look at the Cross and, when we see it, let us see it for what it truly is: a triumph over every single fear in our lives. When we see the crosses in our life, we can look at it and realize it is destroying the fear in our own life.
And more importantly, let us continue to bear those crosses of our life patiently and without fear. If we do, we too will be following the way of Jesus, and that Way doesn’t end at the Cross. Rather the Way of Jesus—that Way of Life unending, Life Everlasting,--really and truly begins at the Cross.