It isn’t really the Feast of the Holy Cross today – that will be tomorrow. But rather than focus on the two thousandth Sunday after Pentecost I thought it would be fun to anticipate just a bit. And since we are the Order of the Holy Cross, the Exaltation of the Cross is a fairly big deal.
I suppose that, as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, the feast should be a totally happy one for me. But it isn’t. I have lots of mixed feelings about the feast.
There is much that is wonderful and glorious in the history of Christianity, but nobody will be shocked if I also say that there is much that is vile and wicked. Some of the very best in human nature has been drawn out, encouraged, and nurtured by the Church. And some of the very worst in human nature has, sadly, found encouragement in the Church as well. Our history is mixed. And the cross has stood in the middle of it all.
We have much to celebrate, but we also have much for which we can only hang our heads in shame.
The Gospel reading sounds a note of caution: “Now is the judgment of this world… the rulers of this world will be driven out…”
The discomfort that I feel hangs right on that bit of Gospel. When we celebrate exultant feasts, for me it takes on the flavor of this world. Our symbols and pageantry all seem dressed in things that human’s value: power, glory, bigness. Whereas Jesus talks about humility and meekness.
Yet at the same time, Jesus was very clear. We must celebrate as those at a wedding banquet must celebrate – a miserable, dour Christianity is just as dominated by this world as a Christianity that lacks introspection and remorse.
This is the conflict I carry into my thinking about the exaltation of the cross: It must be both a wedding banquet and a time for reflection and repentance.
It gives me great comfort that, as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, I have another vast tradition to strengthen me – the Benedictine tradition. That tradition calls me to stability and to balance. Stability requires me, as uncomfortable as I may be, to stay and wrestle with my discomfort. And balance assures me that the tension between celebration and remorse is healthy and appropriate – to leave out either would be to lose balance.
Early Christians didn’t have the symbol of the cross in such a prominent place as we do. In their day we would have seen more fish than crosses. Seeing crosses as often as we do anesthetizes us, but the plain meaning of the cross is brutal and horrific.
We no longer use crucifixion as a means of killing those we wish, in the name of justice, to kill. Here in South Africa, Capital Punishment ended some time ago, but before that we might have seen Jesus hanged. In the US, where Executions still take place, Jesus would most likely have been injected with a lethal substance. I can’t help but think that it is only by circumstance that we have a cross instead of a noose or syringe as the symbol of our faith.
If we try to imagine any of these items, or any of our other methods of execution, above this altar, perhaps we get a glimpse of how the cross might have spoken to those early Christians. It is traumatic and discomforting.
In exalting the cross, we are taking something that is brutal, painful, deadly… and resurrecting it in a most hopeful and life-giving way… Of course, we don’t do that… God does that. The cross in human hands, our hands, is an abomination. Only through God’s redeeming love can it show love.
The story of the cross is the story of redemption being possible for the most evil of things. We lose a great deal if we let the true depth of that evil slip out of the picture. For we are no different than the crowds who called for Jesus to be nailed to the cross… no different than the public servants who executed that task.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow. But I have the sense that, starting perhaps with Emperor Constantine and continuing to my own life, too often we take up the cross and lead. On a feast like the Exaltation of the Cross it is easy to feel good about raising up the cross. Along with that comfortable, good feeling, comes the temptation to carry the cross in directions that feel good and comfortable… But Jesus does not lead us in feel-good, comfortable ways.
It is very easy, as humans, to beguile ourselves into thinking the cross is leading us exactly where we wanted to go in the first place… It is quite convenient. It is quite sinful.
We could develop a never-ending list of times when we have taken up our cross and gone exactly where we wanted to go following our own hearts and leaving Jesus on the Cross… in the dust.
That is half the story, and it must be faced. We do not exalt the cross if we do not bring to mind our failures and our frailty, if we do not confess and humbly repent.
From this point in history we can look at the Crusades and say that, however well intentioned, however faithful those who went, they were not following the Cross of Jesus. In our Anglican tradition, the reformers who brutally killed their opponents (and that includes all sides) were not following the Cross. In US history, when we more or less exterminated the Native Americans in the name of fulfilling God’s destiny for us, the Cross was left behind. The abandoning of the Cross in the name of Apartheid also comes to mind.
The other half of the story is the endless list of times when people, including each of us, did take up their cross and follow… often at great personal cost… even to the point of death. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhȍffer spring to mind. But as the example of Desmond Tutu tells us, we don’t have to die to be effective witnesses to the wonder and love of the Cross.
This is the transformation that we need, that I need in my heart – that I can die to this world and be resurrected to God’s Kingdom – not as some far off, fantastic, future thing, but here and now. Through God’s love it is possible.
The power of the cross is this: that something so loathsome and so detestable can be transformed by God into something so loving and so life giving. It is death and transformation through resurrection.