Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy Cross Day

Have you ever had the sort of occasion or moment that needed an extra celebration? The other day, someone told me that she was taking a whole month to celebrate her birthday. I don’t remember whether that was a particularly momentous birthday (i.e., the kind that ends in a “0”), but it seemed to me that she needed some extra time to come to grips with the fact that she is another year older. And I guess that is true in some circumstances—sometimes we need a second or third go-round to figure it out.

Holy Cross Day (HCD) is one of those days—or so it seems. We already have a day commemorating the crucifixion. Good Friday is the day when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross. But we also have today—another celebration, another chance to remember the cross.

I know that HCD has its own separate history. Apparently, as legend has it, Constantine’s mother went to Jerusalem and found a piece of the actual, original cross upon which Jesus died. She brough that piece back to the capital of the Roman Empire, and a cathedral was built around that relic. The translation of that piece of wood became known as HCD. Now, I don’t really know how important it is that we remember the work of good old Constantine’s mother, but I do think it’s important that the church take another opportunity to study the cross.

And perhaps that is the chief way in which HCD is different from Good Friday. Today, HCD, we remember the cross itself. Perhaps it’s silly to think that one can remember or celebrate the instrument of death and not have in mind the person who is almost exclusively associated with that form of death, but I think it’s an important distinction. We aren’t celebrating the fact that Jesus died for our sins. Today, we celebrate the instrument itself. The symbol. The cross.

In today’s (optional) reading from Galatians, we read that Paul plans to boast only in the cross of Christ. And we read that because of the cross, nothing else matters. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision. In light of the new creation—that which was wrought through the hard wood of the cross—nothing else matters. And that’s significant. The cross itself is its own part of the story. The cross is what makes the crucifixion a new moment in human history.

Although it’s true that the crucifixion itself is a distinct moment for salvation history, the cross itself has something else to say. Good Friday is always tied to Easter. They are inseparable. But we need to linger longer at Calvary in order to get the full statement that the cross itself represents. The message of the cross is this: God could have chosen any method to deliver his message of universal, limitless love to the world, but he chose the cross. Not a throne—a cross.

God disclosed himself to us in weakness rather than in strength. God chose suffering over success. God chose shame over glory. And that’s no accident. God’s nature is most fully revealed in suffering. (I’m not suggesting that God suffers. Instead, that God is to be found in suffering.)

The heart of God’s self-disclosure is suffering itself. Paradox of paradoxes! The cross is the sign to the world that God isn’t absent in a moment of suffering. God is fully present in that suffering. In fact, it might even be said that the closest we can get to God is in our own moments of anguish and pain. God is near us…not so much when we pray but when we feel pain.

HCD is a reminder to us that suffering isn’t godless. God isn’t absent in our weakest moments. Instead, as Bonhoeffer writes in his Letters and Papers from Prison, God chooses suffering to show himself to us. Suffering is in and of itself holy. That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to put on a happy face and pretend that everything will be ok one day. And it also doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to give up our eschatological hope that one day all suffering will be removed. We do cling to that hope. Instead, HCD means that our suffering isn’t empty. It does not represent a moment when God is absent. Quite the contrary. God is with us most fully through suffering. What a message of redemption!

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