Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2018
‘He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.’
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is, I think, an innate desire within us as humans to mark places of significance. We do so in part to ensure that we do not forget things that should not be forgotten. This impulse to mark place is especially powerful for those we consider holy. Examples from Scripture abound. The book of Genesis tells us that following his vision of a ladder extending to heaven Jacob takes the rock on which he had laid his head, sets it up as a pillar, pours oil over it, and marks it, believing it to be none other than the ‘house of God and the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17). In a similar way, after Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River he takes twelve rocks from the river and sets them up as a monument to mark that spot as the place where God had led the Israelites to safety (Joshua 4:20-22). The monument was to remind the Israelites, their children, and their children’s children that the Lord had provided and protected them in the past and would continue to do so in the future.
The origins of the feast we celebrate today, Holy Cross Day, emerge from this same desire expressed by early Christians to mark holy places, especially those associated with the events of the life of Jesus. In the early fourth century the fortunes of the fledgling Christian movement were radically changed with the decision of the Emperor Constantine to extend religious tolerance to Christians in the Roman Empire. This decision would, within a very short period of time, shift Christianity from the religion of an often persecuted minority to the religion of the establishment. According to tradition, a few years after Constantine’s declaration of tolerance for Christians his mother Helena went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem during which time she discovered the True Cross, the remnants of the very cross on which Jesus had been crucified. An order was soon issued by Constantine and his mother Helena that a grand church be built over this site in Jerusalem believed to be the place where Christ was crucified. Nine years later the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated, with a portion of the True Cross remaining in the new church.
This church, for obvious reasons, soon became a place of great devotion and pilgrimage for Christians, especially during Holy Week, that period in which the Church remembers the passion of our Lord. One of the most valuable accounts of early Christian worship comes from the diary of a Spanish nun named Egeria who traveled to Jerusalem in the late fourth century, just a few decades after Helena is said to have found the True Cross, and recorded her experiences of the Holy Week liturgies in the city. On Good Friday the faithful came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to the very place believed to be the site of our Lord’s crucifixion, for worship. At the core of this liturgy was the veneration of the True Cross, a time for the faithful to come and kiss the wood of the cross on which our Lord was believed to have sweat, bleed, and ultimately died. Egeria’s account of this liturgy notes that the bishop sat in a chair holding the True Cross for the faithful to venerate so as to ensure that no one would attempt to steal it. Deacons attended the bishop and were charged with ensuring that none of the worshippers attempted to bite the cross and secure even a tiny portion of it. This act of devotion clearly held enormous power for the faithful of late fourth century Jerusalem.
Those of you who have journeyed through Holy Week here at Christ Church may recognize some similarity between the practice of late fourth century Jerusalem and our own here at Christ Church. It was, in fact, Egeria’s writing that helped to spread this practice of veneration of the cross across the Christian Church. Though undeniably filled with great power, this act of devotion also reveals the depths of the mystery and paradox that is the cross. I was deeply struck by this realization on Good Friday. As we made our way toward that cross situated under the rood screen, as we fell to our knees and bowed down in worship, I was overcome by the power and indeed the absurdity of this act of devotion. I realized that there was nothing else in this world to which I would bow down in such a way. As if for the first time, I realized that we came to venerate an instrument of death. Yet even still I knew that we also came to bow in awe and wonder at the saving power of that cross and the incomprehensibility of God’s love for us.
The great mystery and paradox of the cross is well described in the beautiful language of today’s epistle reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s widely believed that this passage was a pre-existing hymn that St. Paul incorporated into his letter to the church at Philippi. This Christ hymn extols Jesus’ self-emptying death on the cross. Though in the form of God, Jesus willingly humbled himself, becoming human. He humbled himself even more still, for he, of his own accord, willingly submitted himself to death, to a humiliating, brutal, and painful death on a cross. But the story does not end there. An instrument of brutality becomes the means of our salvation, humbling to the point of death becomes an exaltation to glory, the way of death is transformed into the way of life. This, St. Paul reminds us, is the paradox of the cross. This, St. Paul exhorts us, is the mind we are to have.
Jesus knew his journey would lead to the cross– to humiliation and death. And so in today’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to some Greeks who had come to the Passover festival to worship telling them, ‘and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ That is an image of perfect love– Christ our Lord nailed to the cross and raised up, drawing all people to himself. This image has particular power for those who worship in this space. The magnificent rood that so captures and demands your attention when you enter this space reminds us of Christ’s crucifixion and of his drawing all people to himself. Look with me at his hands. You might be able to see that they aren’t completely nailed to the cross. They are outstretched and open. They are reaching out, drawing people toward him. Jesus reaches out with words that say: come to me and bring your sufferings and pains; come to me and bring the deepest longings of your heart; I will take away your sins, no matter how terrible you think they may be; come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. There is something about the intensity of this divine love, something about being confronted with the fierceness with which God loves us, with the brutality and violence of the cross and Jesus’ suffering that disarms us. It is not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. And so the temptation to avoid the cross is always present. We may attempt to speak of love as if it were a cheap, easy, or convenient thing. We can try to avoid the cost of love and the reality of the cross, but we cannot escape it. For the cross is at the very heart of the Christian story. It is the fullest revelation of God’s love for us. Perhaps the only thing we can do in the face of such incomprehensible love is bow down and worship.
For nearly 1700 years pilgrims have journeyed to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, drawn by the power of that site’s believed connection with the True Cross and the passion of our Lord. Perhaps some of you have already or will someday be able to make that holy journey, but for most of us that is not a reality. This feast is, of course, about so much more than the commemoration of the dedication of a grand church. In some parts of the Church this day is known as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This name seems to best capture the power and paradox of this day. An instrument of death becomes the means of our salvation and the path to life. We need not visit any place of significance to experience that power. We know its power because we bear that very sign on our foreheads in baptism. Whenever we mark ourselves with the cross we are reminded of the self-emptying humility of the one who hung upon it and are empowered to follow his way. And so we glory in the cross of Christ, and praise and glorify his holy resurrection; for by virtue of his cross joy has come to the whole world. May we be people foolish enough to believe it, and may God give us grace to take up our own cross and follow in the way of the one who emptied himself for the life of the world.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.