Have you wrestled with the cross lately?

September 14, 2011

Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA
Feast of the Holy Cross, September 14, 2011
2nd Year MDIV Student

Lectionary: Isaiah 45:21-25, Psalm 98, Galatians 6:14-18, John 12:31-36

A few weeks ago, on the first day of classes, Anglican Studies eagerly welcomed six more students to the program. As with any group, when new people join, there are always questions about how things work and what we do. On this particular day, knowing we would be leading Evensong & Eucharist that evening, we spent some time walking through the service.

It was only a year ago that I was going through the same thing – completely unfamiliar with sung Evensong – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – and having to learn it on the fly. There I was, considered one that was leading the service, yet I was wholly unsure of what I was doing at every turn.

Now lucky for us, this year’s newbies are good at asking questions. As we went through the liturgy someone asked “When do we make the sign of the cross?” which was quickly followed by “How do you make the sign of the cross?” These are good questions, and remind us that we all have different sensibilities and experiences with this particular gesture.

For many, the only time they see this gesture is when they are watching a baseball game and the batter makes the sign of the cross as he steps up to the plate. And even though this acknowledges the same strength and protection from God through Christ, the spitting and scratching that follows is not part of our routine… or at least not intentionally.

We also acknowledge that there’s a risk that by using this gesture, the sign of the cross, we may be sending a message that could be misunderstood, or it might make others uncomfortable – especially if it isn’t used in their faith tradition.

Even so, you might have noticed that we like making this service a little different from other Candler worship – not just to be different, but to experience a broader range of liturgical practices, and to learn them ourselves.

And as part of this “differentness,” instead of drawing on the Sunday lectionary each week, we celebrate a saint, like St. Bartholomew, a holy person, like Alexander Crummell, or holy day, like today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. Holy Cross Day has been celebrated in the Western Church since the 7th century and as early as the 4th century in the East.

This is a time to glorify the cross as a sign of victory over death. Perhaps not too surprising – it’s placed in the church calendar about as far away from Good Friday as you can get!

Yet September 14th is actually the date in 335 CE when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated. You see, after Emperor Constantine affirmed Christianity, his mother, Helena, went to Israel to find significant historical Christian locations. Having found what they believed to be the location of the Crucifixion and the Burial (which were near each other), she had a church built on this site. The dedication was a festive occasion to celebrate the triumph of the cross, and the victory of Christ over death.

But, it must have seemed odd to some who were still remembering, or at least had heard of, the persecutions and martyrdom Christians had experienced not so long before. And now, in stark contrast, the location of Jesus death and the empty tomb were being glorified.

And what does it mean to glorify the cross?

This was the cruel instrument of death used to kill Jesus in a brutal and shameful way. In Luke Timothy Johnson’s New Testament class yesterday, he reminded us that for Jews, death on the cross carried with it God’s curse, and for Greeks, how one died was proof of one’s character – so Jesus could not be the Messiah precisely because he died on the cross.

Even in today’s gospel reading from John, we hear this struggle after Jesus reveals the kind of death he was to die. The crowd responded by saying, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

And there’s the tension.
Is the cross a means of glory or a means of shame?
Can it be both at once?
Isn’t it both at once?

We see, throughout the Christian tradition, this love-hate relationship with the cross as a symbol. Wouldn’t the empty tomb have been easier to sell? Maybe harder to depict over an altar or to carry into battle… and certainly harder to make into a charm and wear on a chain around our neck. But perhaps far less controversial – especially within the Christian community itself.

The cross has been a symbol that brings people together, but also one that sets Christians apart from others.

In her study on preaching the cross, Harvard scholar, Beverly Kienzle provides examples of how the cross was used to set Christians apart from Jews, heretics and Muslims. She also points out that from Late Antiquity throughout the Middle Ages, Christians themselves disagreed over the theology and practices related to the cross.(1) I think that still holds true today.

Yet, we see again and again, the cross as a symbol, integrated into the Christian message.

In the early 5th century, Augustine preached a sermon in Carthage that established the four dimensions of divine love from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, as the four dimensions of the cross –

  • the traversal width of the cross – signified good works,
  • the length of the cross, from the ground up to the transversal point – signified perseverance,
  • the distance from the traversal point upwards – signified waiting for the heavenly reward,
  • and the portion of the cross that was beneath the ground, hidden beneath the earth, signified God’s grace.

And using this imagery, Augustine challenges his listeners to see that “the suffering and death of Christ points to boundless charity.”(2)

In the conclusion of her study, Kienzle summarizes that “Turned inward, the symbol of the cross invites spiritual growth in self-discipline and service to others. Turned outward, it drives a militant Christianity to pursue its enemies.”(3)

So, while imagery around the cross has been used to instruct our spiritual growth, we can’t ignore how the cross has also been used to incite war and the crusades; to justify hate against Jews, and in so doing, owning some level of responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust.

So how do we reconcile these conflicting ways we see the cross?
How do we resolve our love-hate relationship with the cross?

Are we meant to?
… Why would we want to do that? After all, we’re the denomination that likes living in the tension, right?
In today’s gospel Jesus challenges his followers, those that are grappling with the conflicting message of a messiah that will be crucified, and in what seems cryptic to modern-day readers, John’s gospel speaks of the light. Jesus says that the light is with you for a little longer… walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you.

I believe the time we have here at Candler is the time we are walking in this bright light – a time when we are seeing things in a way we haven’t before. Perhaps it’s making us uncomfortable… doing things in a way we haven’t experienced… questioning our own understanding of how God works in the world… of how God works in us??

He says… “while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” That sounds really comforting doesn’t it?
Yet, the last line of the passage says that Jesus departed and hid from them –


Welcome to a life of faith.

There will be times when the bright light reveals all the blemishes and flaws that we had hoped to keep hidden. Or perhaps even more troubling, it will reveal the blemishes and flaws of our own faith tradition… the one we not only profess, but the one we hope to lead and to teach others about.

There will be a tension there.

We may even become scarred by some of these things we encounter. If so, these will be the marks of Jesus, branded on our body… and in our hearts. Even so, I trust that we will be better teachers if we wrestle in our learning. We will be better pastors if we truly know what it is to suffer. We can convey what it is to live by faith when we have lived by it fully ourselves.

And when we feel that we are being challenged the most, when we realize our messiah is about to hang on the tree… and it seems that Jesus has disappeared and is hidden from us, remember Augustine’s imagery of God’s grace – the portion of the cross hidden beneath the earth. Although unseen, it is providing the foundation for salvation.

And also be assured that when Christ is lifted up from the earth, he draws all people to himself. Even in our doubt, even with our anxieties, even when we challenge God’s call to us.

So today, let us celebrate the cross, through it we are strengthened and protected. It is our symbol of triumph over death and over all those things that threaten to defeat us.

Footnotes:  (1) Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Preaching the Cross: Liturgy and Crusade Propaganda, Medieval Sermon Studies, Vol. 53, 2009, 12. (2) Ibid., 15. (3) Ibid., 32.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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