Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Strange Love of the Cross


September 14, 2022 - Holy Cross Day
Isaiah 45:21-25; Galatians 6:14-18; John 12:31-36a

You know those moments from your past that fill you with embarrassment and shame? Things you said or did that you now look back on and wish you could go back and undo them? I don't dwell on any of them very often, but, every once in a while, when I'm in a particular setting or my mind wanders back through the past until it lands in an uncomfortable spot, I am overwhelmed by that sense of regret. Where do those memories live when they aren't at the front of our mind? What sort of baggage are we carrying around? Why do we keep reburying those things when they pop back up? In the end, when this life is over and we set our burdens down, what do we think happens to them?

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. One legend has it that the original cross, the True Cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was discovered by Helena, the mother of Constantine during a missionary journey to found churches and relief agencies in fourth-century Palestine. When taken to the spot on which Jesus was said to have suffered, died, and been buried, Helena saw that a pagan temple stood in on the site. She ordered it to be destroyed and the earth under it to be dug out and carted away. As they dug away the dirt, they discovered three buried crosses, one of which must have belonged to Jesus and the other two to the thieves who hung on either side of him. To determine which once was the True Cross, they brought out a noble woman of the city who had suffered from an illness for many years and caused her to touch each cross. Finally, when she touched the True Cross, her illness was miraculously healed. Helena and her associates established that cross as an object of devotion in what would be come the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but she took with her the Holy Nails and a few fragments of wood back to Constantinople, where this devoted mother ordered that some of nails be melted down and incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse for added protection.

I'm not sure that I believe any of that legend, but I am sure that the legend points us to a remarkable and, perhaps, even more important discovery--the transformation of the cross from something we would bury in the ground as a reminder of a shameful death into to something we would venerate as a symbol of our new and everlasting life. We may take it for granted, but that discovery took a little time.

In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote boldly of the cross of Christ as something in which he boasted--the source of his own transformation--but that wasn't something his readers would have taken for granted. First-century Christians largely did not know what to do with the cross. The earliest iconography and symbology that Christians used omitted the reminder of Jesus' execution. Paul instinctively used the shame of the cross to highlight the glory of God, but a fuller appreciation for how the instrument of shame and death could become a sign of life and hope took a hundred years or so to develop. By the end of the second century, mosaics begin to depict the cross as a reality to celebrate, but the first disciples of Jesus and the generation or two that followed them were so traumatized by the execution of Jesus that they preferred to bury that memory and all signs of it literally in the ground.

To me, that sounds familiar. My instinct is to hide away the reminders of my shame because, on the surface, they represent for me my greatest failures. Those are moments from my past that I would just assume leave behind. And yet a part of me knows that they have to come out--out of the dark, out of the ground, of out me--in order that I might be healed. And the cross of Christ is how they come out without the sting of shame and death.

"When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus proclaimed, "I will draw all people to myself." This, John tells us, was to indicate the kind of death that we was to die. The confusing, strange, beautiful, counter-intuitive truth of the cross is that, by dying for us, Jesus lifts from us the shame of our own little, painful deaths. If the cross of Christ is the consequence of humanity's brokenness, then the empty tomb shows us that the death of Jesus is also the death of our own death--our own brokenness, our sin. We find salvation, therefore, not in running away from the cross or our own shame that belongs there but by turning toward it, uncovering it, looking at it, and giving it over to the saving power of God.

Because of Jesus, we believe that even our very worst has no power to defeat God and God's forgiving love. Because of Jesus, we believe that the things we most want to hide have already been confronted and defeated by God. We celebrate the cross not because it is an instrument of shame and death but because, though such an instrument, God has redeemed us and healed us and made us whole. Jesus Christ stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross so that all people might come within his saving embrace. 

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