"For he is our peace; in his flesh
he has made both groups into one..."
Eve of Holy Cross Day,
I Kings 8:22-30
Psalm 46, 87
Ephesians 2: 11-22
St. Mark's Church
CDSP, Berkeley, CA
September 13, 2009
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Sunday, the Lord's Day, and it is also the eve of Holy Cross Day. Derived from the dedication of church buildings in Jerusalem where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands on September 14, 335. Tradition has it that in the process of overseeing the work, St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found a relic of the true cross. This date also marked the dedication of Solomon's Temple hundreds of years earlier. But more than the dedication of church buildings or the finding of relics is the focus of this Feast: the cross, which, in many and varied forms, has remained an object of veneration for the gift of Jesus' death and resurrection for our salvation. But it also brought to mind a story:
Several years ago, I watched an ABC Television Special on religion in America. The program featured those large “mega-churches” that resemble shopping malls and seem to attract enough people to fill them. As he toured one of these churches, Peter Jennings noticed that there was no cross to be seen anywhere. When he asked the pastor about it, the reply came, “Oh, the cross might get in the way.” I think I was as startled as Peter Jennings was!
But I have to admit it’s true. The cross does seem to get in the way. While some folks don’t like to see it at all, we see the cross all the time and tune it out. We Episcopalians can’t bear to look upon a crucifix (there is one in this room, but you will have to look carefully to find it!) Instead, we have the cross that is carried in procession, or the ornamented cross over the Rood Screen, the brass cross on the High Altar, or the crosses we wear. We make the sign of the cross and forget it as an instrument of an awful death or its origins in baptism. Maybe we would notice if churches were adorned with a more modern form of execution...
We don’t like the cross because it puts death in the middle of our Alleluias; it reminds us of the betrayal and failure that led to Jesus’ death. In the middle of our successes, it recalls the times we have failed to trust God and one another. We hear Paul’s words that “[God] did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us...”(Rom. 8:32) and this does not fit our image of a merciful, loving God. Or the beautiful Philippians Hymn which tells us that Jesus gave himself completely, even to death on a cross. And we hear Jesus' words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This is strong stuff! But if we will look at the cross--contemplate it, gaze upon it--there we will find the Good News.
It is interesting that Christians in the first centuries after Jesus’ death never depicted him suffering on the cross. This was probably not denial (they knew how horrible a death it was) but for their safety, until Christianity became legal. The empty cross, a symbol of the resurrection, did not become popular until the Reformation. The suffering Christ did not appear until around the 6th century. Celtic crosses are particularly striking. In one type Jesus is there, but not suffering. Rather, he is gazing straight ahead with arms outstretched. The hands, however, are much larger--all out of proportion--as if to gather the whole world into an embrace. Jesus said:
"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself."
But what is the Good News of Jesus' crucifixion? Jesus’ self-offering on the cross was the ultimate demonstration of God's forgiveness--that God still loves us in spite of our sinfulness. It restores our trust in God’s ability to redeem even the most awful of failures; it proclaims that evil and death have been defeated. Most of all, it is the ultimate sign of reconciliation. Hear again the words of St. Paul:
But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been
brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace: in his
flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down
the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Eph. 2:14)
How much we need to hear this--and believe it--in the midst of a divided Church, a polarized society and a warring world! It is Jesus' death on the cross, which is beyond all our opinions and politics--that is the source of our peace and reconciliation. To bear the cross, then, is to be willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus (as many reconcilers do), and to take up the call of Paul's words in another letter:
...[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting
the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors
for Christ... (2 Cor. 5: 19-20)
The goal of the Christian life is to be brought to God by way of Jesus’ death and resurrection--and then to bring each other to God--and finally to bring the world to God. Here is the most wonderful redemption of such an awful death!
Look at the cross--contemplate it, gaze upon it-- there we will find the Good News.
Perhaps the simple words of the 19th century hymn writer Walter Russell Bowie put it best:
O love that triumphs over loss,
we bring our hearts before thy cross,
to finish thy salvation.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
THE COLLECTS AT THE PRAYERS
FOR THE HUMAN FAMILY
O God, you made is in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
FOR THE CHURCH
Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth, with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. AMEN.
FOR THOSE WHO INFLUENCE PUBLIC OPINION
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write where many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, nd its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
FOR THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.
Images: (1) Celtic Cross by William Burns (ink and color Pencil).
V. Let us bless the Lord.
R. Thanks be to God.