The Rev’d Molly James
Dean of Formation, Episcopal Church in Connecticut
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2017
May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is a privilege to be with you all this evening. I am grateful to Fr. Stephen for the invitation. It is always a joy to be a part of liturgy in this beautiful and holy space. It is a particular joy to be with you on this night as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. It may sound strange, but this is actually one of my favorite feasts of the Church year. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I love Christmas and Easter. Of course I find Holy Week to be tremendously meaningful. It is more that today feels a like a more personal and intimate feast day. It is like Holy Week in miniature without all the logistics and details we clergy have to keep track of then. It is a day that is a real gift. It is a day to contemplate what the Cross means in our own lives.
For me this day has real, personal significance. When I was in the midst of my own discernment process for ordination, I was asked what moment in our Lord’s life I connected with most deeply. My answer was immediate: the Cross. I was 22, and I was only a few years removed from a battle with bone cancer. It mattered a great deal to me that our Lord and Savior knows the fullness of the human experience, including the realities of pain and suffering. My intimate connection with God came through confronting my own mortality and knowing that God knew exactly what I was going through.
I know I am not the only one for whom the realities of the crucifixion hold deep meaning. No doubt many of us here have had profound experiences of personal pain and suffering. No doubt, like so many of the notable Christian theologians and mystics, we have come to the realization that God’s presence can often be most deeply felt in the midst of those challenging experiences. Profound experiences of suffering have a way of narrowing our vision. We realize how many things in life are more superficial or insignificant. The mundane distractions of daily life fade away, and we are left with what really matters: our relationship with God and with those around us. The experience of illness or profound loss can take away so much, but as St. Paul, so eloquently reminds us, there is nothing in life, not even death, that can separate us from the love of God. And it is so often in those crucible moments of our lives that we see the love of God most fully and feel it most deeply in our own hearts.
That is the truth of the Cross. The Cross shows us the depth of God’s love for us. God loves us so very deeply that God is willing to give of God’s self, even to the point of death. This is a profound reality, and it is often the pathway to deeper relationship with God. There is, however, an important caveat to be made here.
While I absolutely believe that suffering is an avenue to deepen our connection to God, that does not mean that suffering is a good in and of itself or that it should be sought out. Our Collect today asks that we might “take up our Cross” and follow Christ. That phrase deserves a little unpacking. And our readings help us to do that. Our readings, particularly the Epistle from Philippians and John’s Gospel remind us that love and self-giving generosity are at the heart of the Cross. They remind us too that we are called to be children of the light. God does not wish for us to experience pain or suffering. We must remember that Jesus came so that we might have LIFE, and have it abundantly.
Unfortunately, there is a strand in our Christian tradition that has said that since suffering is a way to God, we should seek it out (note the monastic traditions of self-deprivation or even self-harm). Or perhaps even worse is the way the Church has used the glorification of suffering to promote oppression. Sadly,there is a legacy of the Church saying to those on the margins or those who are oppressed that they should accept their current reality as their “cross to bear” and to find consolation in the fact that suffering brings us closer to God.
One of my favorite theologians, is a Roman Catholic sister from Brazil named Ivone Gebara. She is a feminist theologian who is deeply critical of the Church for the ways in which it has used the Cross to perpetuate those on the margins of society, particularly women. Gebara helps us to look at the reality of suffering with an important critical lens. When we encounter suffering in our lives, our own or others, we must ask an essential question: is this suffering endemic to the human experience (such as illness or a natural disaster) or is this suffering the result of injustice? If it is endemic, then we must learn to live with it, and it is here that we can be grateful for the gift of feelings God’s presence most abundantly in the midst of suffering. If, on the other hand, the suffering we have encountered is the result of injustice then we followers of Jesus are called to fight injustice.
There is far too much injustice in our world today, whether it is the economic injustice of the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the rise of hate speech and hate crimes against individuals for their gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnic identity. Too many of our sisters and brothers are suffering. We are called to take action and to speak out against injustice wherever we find it.
So I hope that this Holy Cross day will be a day of comfort and inspiration for all of us. I hope we can find comfort, particularly any of us who may in the midst of our own trials and tribulations, in the profound truth that God knows our suffering and God is present with us even in our most painful moments. And I hope that we will also be inspired, particularly those of us who are in positions of power and privilege, to fight against injustice. I hope that we will be inspired to stand with those on the margins, and to realize that if we have any cross to bear in life it is the hard and holy work of realizing God’s dream of justice and life abundant for all people.