Notes for a sermon for Holy Cross Day, 2014, at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.
Texts: Num 21:4b-9; Ps 98:1-6; 1 Cor 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
At Choir practice on Thursday night, one member asked what this “Holy Cross Day” was. Good question! It goes back to the year 335, when the Church of the Resurrection (now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem was dedicated. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, the chief organizer of the building of the Church, had found some wood on the site which she held to be the True Cross of Christ. The day became associated with the exaltation of the cross as the symbol of Christ’s victory. It has been in the calendar of the RC Church and many Orthodox churches ever since.
In Anglican practice, it was regarded as a lesser feast, which meant it was never observed on a Sunday. The revision of the calendar in the BAS raised it to the status of a “Feast taking precedence over a Sunday.” Because it’s on a fixed date, it doesn’t turn up very often—today is only the fifth time since the new calendar came into use, and the first since 2008. I am glad that Fr. Chris chose to celebrate Holy Baptism on this day, because the symbol and the sacrament are closely related. The cross is the most widely-used symbol of Christ’s victory over death. In Baptism—the sacrament of new birth—a person is brought into participation in the Risen Life: the old self is dead! Our practices of Baptism obscure that a bit, but if you have ever taken part in an outdoor full-immersion Baptism, the symbolism can’t be missed. There’s danger here!
In that light, we observe that the cross can be a powerful symbol of danger and death. Again, our practices have tended to shield us from that reality: it can be hard to see a gleaming, jewel-bedecked cross as an instrument of torture and death, but that’s where the symbol comes from.
The cross was almost unknown as a symbol for the church’s first three centuries. The most common symbol was a fish. At a time when Christian faith was at best tolerated by the state, and at worst persecuted, the cross was a reminder of Imperial oppression and cruelty. Perhaps paradoxically, the use of the cross as we now know it only began to appear after Constantine had made the faith legal, and after the abolition of crucifixion as a mode of punishment and execution—right around the time when his mother is said to have discovered the True Cross. (If that seems like an odd coincidence, well…maybe it really isn’t.)
Revolutions bring huge changes—that’s what the word means! Among other things, Constantine’s religious revolution made the church safe for the first time in its history. Somewhat ironically, the church then adopted the most “unsafe” symbol of all as its emblem. This exemplifies the upending of so much of the Church’s life in the 4th Century, some of which we heard about in the first session of our Thursday morning study. For one, we heard how Harvey Cox in “The Future of Faith” called the pre-Constantinian period “the age of faith” and the subsequent era “the age of belief.” The two things are not at all the same thing: belief has to do with thought, while faith has to do with action. “Belief” in this sense is a noun, while “faith” is really a verb.
The early church was primarily concerned with how people lived and behaved—a desire for “orthopraxy.” After Constantine, the church’s focus changed to what people thought—a desire for “orthodoxy.” Harvey Cox suggests that we are now in the early days of a new age of the church, which he calls “the age of the Spirit.” The cross stands as the pre-eminent symbol of the age of belief, and it has often been used to teach particular beliefs.
When I say “the cross,” you might well ask “which cross?” The commonest version is the so-called “Latin cross,” like the one I’m wearing; there are many variations on this very simple theme. Every one recalls in its own way the death of Jesus, but various churches and movements have adopted particular kinds of crosses, sometimes for historical reasons, but very often to emphasize a particular way of understanding Jesus’ death.
Latin crosses have no figure of Jesus, reminding us that Jesus has passed through death to the Risen Life.
Crucifixes remind us of Jesus’ suffering, a key aspect of substitutionary atonement, one doctrine of how we are saved through the death of Jesus.
Orthodox crosses have three horizontal pieces, a visual reminder of the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion.
Each cross in its own way recalls Jesus’ death and resurrection—the central story of the mystery of salvation.
To recall the story and to seek to understand it is one thing: that’s a matter of belief (orthodoxy). It is entirely another thing to ask “so what?” What difference does the cross make in our lives (othopraxy)? What kind of mission does it point to in the life of the church and of us as individuals? What difference will the cross on our candidate’s forehead make in his life?
It seems to me that we can talk about a “cross-shaped” or “cruciform” mission. The cross on which Christ gave up his life for us was rooted in the earth, reached up to heaven, and outward in loving embrace. Christian life and mission should therefore:
- Be rooted in the here and now of human life.
- Reach upward, seeking to want what God wants.
- Not condemn, but reach out to the world.
And, above all:
- Reveal the self-giving love that led Jesus to the cross.
Every Christian wears the cross, invisibly from our baptism. Many choose to wear visible crosses like lapel pins, neck chains, or bumper stickers. Whether visible or not, the question is then: do our lives reflect and proclaim the message of the cross we bear?
As we have inherited it, the cross stands as a challenge to the existing order: the symbol of state oppression and cruelty becoming the paramount sign of holy freedom and love. As Paul said, it was (and still is!) foolishness or a stumbling block to people outside the faith, but “to those who are the called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
May our lives, and the lives of all the baptised, proclaim the power, the wisdom, and the love of the God who gave his only son “in order that the world might be saved through him.”