Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Pursuing the Cross

September 12, 2018 - Holy Cross Day, tr.

Why would anyone go looking for the cross? Why would anyone pursue an instrument of death? Why would anyone want to possess a sign of defeat and shame? Why, as legend has it, did St. Helena, Constantine's mother, travel to Jerusalem in 320 AD search of the macabre relic? Because, of course, the cross isn't just an image of Jesus' crucifixion but also the means of our salvation.

When I was a third-year seminarian, my field-ed parish was in Potomac, Maryland. There were two full-time priests on staff, and I was one of two students who did my contextual education work there, so there were plenty of preachers. Because Sundays were precious, I was given a chance to preach on Good Friday--not the central sermon for the whole day but a meditation on one of the seven last words that Christ spoke before his death. I don't remember which meditation I had, but I do remember my supervisor offering me a cautionary tale before I preached. "Because this is a service that draws in people from different churches, we used to allow preachers from other denominations to participate in the meditations," he explained, "but, a few years ago, in an attempt to connect the pain of Good Friday with the hope that lies ahead, she ended her meditation by declaring, 'Alleluia! He is risen!' to which I replied, 'Not yet, he's not!'" My supervisor told me that, having ruined Holy Week for the whole parish, she was the last guest to preach on Good Friday. It was his way of saying, don't screw it up and let the Easter cat out of the bag.

On Good Friday, we venerate the cross without seeing the resurrection that lies ahead. We pretend, for the sacred three days, that the cross is a sign of pain and suffering not only for Jesus but for his followers, who experience the agony of watching their savior die. On Good Friday, we cannot afford to approach the cross except in the shadow of death, but on Holy Cross Day, which, unless we translate the feast to another day in the week like today, we observe on September 14, we have the opportunity to celebrate its glory.

"May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians, one of his earlier letters. How remarkable that Christians so quickly translated the cross from a sign of a treasonist's failure into a sign of God's victory! Within a generation, followers of Jesus understood the symbol of Rome's most gruesome execution, a device reserved for slaves or insurrectionists, a warning to any who would follow in their footsteps, to have become a means of salvation. The powers of this world intended the cross to be a sign of the Empire's unconquerable might, but at Easter God reversed it, flipping it on its head, and making it a sign of God's true power. Thus, we cannot fully venerate the cross on Good Friday. We need another day, this day, to pause and stand in its radiant light.

But when we venerate the cross, when we wear it around our necks, when we pursue it as St. Helena did, are we celebrating the right victory, or have we, too, re-flipped the image and made it again something else entirely? Paul writes, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." He was not merely boasting in the cross, laughing at the powers of this world as if he and the followers of Jesus had gotten the last laugh. Paul was accepting his own crucifixion, his own earthly shame, his own worldly loss as the means by which his heavenly gain was guaranteed. "From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body," he writes. "I have had my own full share of suffering. I need no more. Carrying the cross is burden enough." When we celebrate the cross and the victory that it gives us, do we forget that God's victory comes not in power but in weakness, not in glory but in shame, not in freedom but in bondage?

May we never boast in anything except in the cross of Christ. May we never see the path on which we follow Jesus as a path of self-gain but of self-emptying. May we never look down from the heights of God's victory in derision of others but with the same, loving gaze through which Jesus beheld the world from the cross. May we never celebrate the cross as a sign of our own glory but of God's, a glory to be found in humility and meekness, a glory that is revealed not in the order of this world but in God's majestic reign.

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