Feast of The Holy Cross
September 14th, 2014
Seth Reese, St. Hilda's House Director
“May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today we observe the Feast of the Holy Cross. As long as I can remember, my family has celebrated this feast day, not because they know the feat but because it falls on September 14th each year, which happens to be my birthday.
Of course, the Feast of the Holy Cross commemorates, not my birth, but the year 335 dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The story, as passed down from the Roman historian Eusebius, goes that the empress Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, in 326 found the True Cross on the grounds. (Incidentally, it has been said that if all the pieces of the True Cross were gathered together, we’d have a lumber yard.) The site is traditionally held to be Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. It is a Holy site to this day, held jointly by the Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic churches.
This feast is tied closely with the Emperor Constantine. His own conversion to Christianity was a dramatic one. In 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge Constantine looked up at the sun and saw a vision of the cross. Written above the cross was the phrase, “Through this sign you shall conquer.” The next day Constantine did in fact win the battle and secured control of the Roman Empire. With his reign, Christianity received official recognition of the State. Modern theologians describe this moment in history as the Constantinian Shift; the point where Christianity moved from a persecuted faith to a dominating power. The same era that saw the writing of our Creed at Nicaea also saw the first executions of heretics and the beginning of Christian empire.
Since Constantine we have seen Christianity and the cross used as a weapon of violence and oppression. In the name of Christ people of been conquered and killed. Our own tradition was born out of English colonialism. When you start digging through the history of the Church from then to now it becomes hard to see why anyone should want to be called a Christian. We are a divided Church. In fact, only a few years ago a raging fight broke out at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the Franciscans and the Orthodox because a Franciscan brother left a door open. Why would anyone enter into this?
I think the answer to that question is the cross. Not the cross that has flown over army standards, but the cross of Jesus. The Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians, “May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” a bold claim in the first century, where the cross was a literal object of degradation and death. I can imagine my own horror if Paul were preaching today and said, “May I never boast in anything except the electric chair…” It doesn’t add up.
Several years ago my wife, Stella, worked on a Muslim-Christian Reconciliation conference at Yale. While I was writing this sermon she and I were talking, and she told me about one lecture in particular that spoke to her about the cross. Joseph Cumming, who was then director of the Reconciliation Program at Yale, spoke to a group of both political and religious Muslim leaders, and said that the scandal of the Christian history is that the cross became a symbol of taking life. Since Constantine, and to this day, the cross has come to represent destruction, oppression, and death. This is a scandal because the cross should be the symbol of those who lay down their lives for others, not a symbol of taking lives out of greed and revenge. The cross should be a sign of those who are willing to die for their brothers and sisters, as Christ was willing to die for us.
Ours is not the only era in which the cross needs to be reclaimed. Paul did something we need to continue doing, which is reclaiming the cross as a symbol of new creation, self-emptying, and of the unity between God and humanity. How else could anyone claim to boast in it? People boast and relish in power all the time, but why should we as a Church boast in the cross? Because of what Jesus did there.
In the Incarnation of Jesus, God reached out to us and became like us. Jesus lived like us, as a child he played like us, he loved like us, and he celebrated like us. He also suffered and experienced heartache like us. In the Daily Office this week we read the part of John’s Gospel that precedes todays. It is the story of Lazarus’ death, where Jesus weeps for his friend. Paul, in today’s Epistle, writes about carrying the marks of Jesus branded on his body. Jesus carries the marks of our suffering on his body. Through the cross we and all the world are new creations.
What does it mean that we are new creations? Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” Our own age is a violent one. The twentieth century was one of the bloodiest in human history and the twenty-first is not looking much better. Yesterday I read with horror about the murder of British aid worker David Haines. We have heard of killing of Iraqi Christians. The world is watching Ukraine wondering where that will lead. The United States and our allies are weighing our options and all of them seem to be pointing to war. Our own age is one of social and economic injustice. Those on the edges of power and money are left to fend for themselves.
Through all of this the other is dehumanized. Those in Islamic State are called barbarians and animals. Many of us are content with letting the Ebola outbreak be Sierra Leone and West Africa’s problem. Others want to send the children fleeing to our southern border back to the gang-war zones they are trying to escape. But, the call of the cross is to push back. We push back against the dehumanization of the other. We push back against injustice. We push back against the power of sin in our world. We don’t condone acts of violence: we recognize the humanity of all people. We are called in today’s Gospel to be “children of light.” Jesus is drawing all people to himself. Our call as Christians and as a Church is to be a part of that. It’s in our Baptismal Covenant. We are asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” We respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Then we are asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.”
Let us take up our cross and follow Jesus in giving up ourselves to God and each other.
Let us walk in the light so that we may become children of light.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.