SERMON FOR HOLY CROSS DAY 2014
September the 14th is Holy Cross Day, commemorating the supposed discovery by Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Normally it is a lesser festival and we scarcely notice the date, but every so often it falls on a Sunday and demands our corporate attention.
Now you might think this is very minor and doubtful occasion to make the focus of a Sunday celebration. But what it does is to give us the chance to reflect on the meaning of the cross, away from the narrative drive of Holy Week. When we commemorate the Lord’s passion we are swept up into an emotional drama that takes us from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, on to the events of Good Friday, the silence of the tomb and then the glorious news of the Resurrection. It is an exhausting rollercoaster every year.
The festival of the Holy Cross allows us a pause halfway around the year from Easter to think about just one aspect of that whole drama: the cross itself and why it is so central to the Christian faith. In fact it is the crux of the matter – a word that means the central or pivotal point, or a puzzling difficulty, coming from the Latin word for cross.
It is also, often, the crux of interfaith dialogue. This dialogue goes back to St Paul, who described the cross of Jesus as “a stumbling-block (or scandal) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” when he wrote his first epistle to the Christians in the cosmopolitan multi-faith city of Corinth. Certainly I have found it a stumbling-block in talking with Muslims, who deem it unacceptable for a prophet of Allah, as they classify Jesus, to be permitted to undergo such a shameful death. Islam teaches that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but was somehow spirited away by God. Many believe that someone else took Jesus’ place at his execution. A verse of the Qur’an states bluntly that “they killed him not”. Muslims share the Christian belief that Jesus was raised bodily to heaven, but they absolutely deny that his journey back to God was by the way of the cross.
Dialogue with Jews is rather different. Jewish scholars readily accept that the rabbi Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities in the usual way that political dissidents were dealt with. What they have trouble with, of course, is the claim that in crucifying Jesus, those authorities were implicated in the death of God himself. The subject is usually politely skirted around, as Jews and Christians seek for common ground where some measure of agreement is possible.
So it struck me as supremely brave and creative for a Jewish scholar I know, Rabbi Mark Solomon, to accept an invitation to preach on Good Friday this year at a church in Edinburgh. He tackled the subject of the cross head on, asking how it is that Jesus can call out to God, “why have you abandoned me?” if he is God incarnate. And he raises this issue, not to attack Christian belief, but to explore what it might possibly mean about the nature of God.
Mark points out that the hard sayings of Jesus are generally accepted by scholars as the ones most likely to be genuine. Jesus calls out in agony the opening verse of Psalm 22. Christian scholars have tried to make this cry more palatable by pointing out that the psalm continues into a mood of trust, acknowledging God’s promise of salvation for all. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied,” says a later verse, in what seems a foreshadowing of Mary’s Magnificat. So Jesus’ words were a sort of an abbreviated clue to the meaning of his Passion, according to this theory.
You may find this helpful. My instinct, though, is that Rabbi Mark is closer to the truth. He points out that “Jesus does not quote the Psalm in Hebrew, “Eli, Eli, lamah azavtani”, but in vernacular Aramaic, “lemah shevaktani”; the language of the street, not the language of the synagogue… It forces us to ask the question: when Jesus quotes this Psalm, is it because these few, powerful words of Scripture come spontaneously to him in his hour of agony, or because he is applying the whole Psalm to his situation?”
Mark goes on to say, “I want to see in this moment, when my great Jewish brother Jesus is dying on the cruel Roman cross – nailed up there by the oppressive might of the Roman Empire as a rebel against Rome’s absolute power and Caesar’s divine pretensions – a simple, direct cry from the heart, drawn indeed from the Psalms, but shouted in the language of the people. It is the cry of every human being who feels abandoned and cannot understand why, if God is all-seeing, all-powerful and all-good, God does not intervene. Jesus here is the Son of Man, everyman and everywoman, each of us in our moment of utter distress.”
Mark acknowledges that Christian faith claims more than this about Jesus, and that Jesus himself and his disciples believed that he was completely one with God, as well as completely one with his people, the suffering nation of Israel. He goes on to draw parallels between the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ Spirit dwelling in his followers, and the Jewish understanding of the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God in the world. It is deeply encouraging that Jewish and Christian scholars are beginning to find common ground even at this most pivotal point, this puzzling crux at the heart of our dialogue.
The suffering of Christ on the cross is somehow at the heart of reality, and it is the result of human sin. Those of us currently immersed in the prophet Ezekiel have found how rich his prophetic imagination is in picturing how the unfaithfulness of Israel will lead inexorably to defeat and exile. When we exile ourselves from God, we turn on one another with hatred and cruelty. Jesus stood at the centrepoint of human sin, in the crosshairs of both the Temple authorities and the Roman imperial power. He was deemed to be an offence to both the God of Abraham and the god-emperor Augustus Caesar.
But in dying on the cross he revealed what God is truly like. The God of Jesus Christ is absolutely identified with suffering humanity. Our pain is his pain. As Mark says in his Good Friday sermon, “when we blasphemously invoke God to justify sectarian strife, religious bigotry, patriarchal power over women, homophobia and inequality, all ‘in the name of God,’ then we drive God away from God, we drag the Divine Presence down into our own narrow hell of causeless hatred, and we make God cry out in pain, as it were, to God: ‘My God – my God! Why have you forsaken me?’”
The hymn that St Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians tells us that the divine love is seen in the very act of self-emptying, of giving up the power and glory that we assume belong to God. God is most truly revealed as divine in the utterly defenceless humanity of Jesus, whose obedience took him to the ultimate shame of a sadistic execution. When Jesus was so identified with the outcast that he could no longer even experience his relationship with his Abba, God, when he plumbed the depths of human misery and suffering, then the love of God was shown to break every barrier. God does not wait for us to rise to his level, but God comes to find us where we are and to share our lives.
The sign of this love has become that instrument of judicial torture, the cross. The early Christians found it so repulsive that they did not use it in iconography. Their image of Christ was more abstract – the fish symbol for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour – or more serene, the beardless young shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders. It was only when the Roman empire’s power began to ebb and crucifixions were just a grisly memory that the cross became a sign of hope rather than a reminder of the gallows.
Today we see crosses everywhere – in fashion jewellery, as the floor plan of churches, on flags and hospitals, in typography, and of course in a myriad forms as a sign of Christian faith. You can wear a Taize cross in the form of a dove, a Franciscan T-shaped cross, an Anglican or Celtic or Greek Orthodox cross, or a crucifix with the figure of Jesus on it. Some of us brought back from the Holy Land a Jerusalem cross, with the four smaller crosses surrounding it to mark the gospel going out to the four corners of the world. Many of us have a wooden holding cross that fits in the palm of our hand.
And not only do we wear crosses, hold them and look at them in church, but throughout the liturgy we use the sign of the cross. It reminds us of our faith in God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but it is also a constant reminder that we bear the sign of Christ’s death that was marked on our foreheads in oil at our baptism. It is the imprint of what love looks like. We look upon it as the Israelites looked up at Moses’ serpent on a pole, as a sign of God’s healing and salvation.
Whenever we or anyone else suffers and comes close to, or falls into, despair, we can never fall lower than the cross itself. The ultimate suffering, God’s own separation from God, lies below us. God’s love will always catch and hold us, and identify with whatever pain or alienation we endure. There is no dark place we can go to where Christ has not gone before us. And so we celebrate the solemn festival of the Holy Cross with joy and thanksgiving.