September 14, 2014
- The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
- Donna Joy
Numbers 21:4b-9; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
September 14th, on the church calendar, is identified as Holy Cross Day, so when this occurs on a Sunday it and the readings that go with it takes precedence over the usual Sunday readings and theme within the season of Pentecost. Next week we will return to our usual pattern within the season of Pentecost, but today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
The roots for this celebration date back to the fourth century when Constantine commissioned his mother, Helena, to oversee the building of an extraordinary church in Jerusalem. The site he chose was Golgotha, the hill where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried, which had since been levelled and - itself - buried under tons of debris. So, in preparing to build this massive church, the entire area had to be excavated for Constantine's new church, and he put his mother in charge of the work.
In the midst of all the digging that was required, the labourers discovered a large beam which the authorities believed was a remnant of the very same cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Portions of this beam were enshrined near the altar of the new church when it was dedicated in honour of the Resurrection on September fourteenth in the year 335; and ever since then, in the East and in the West, Christians have kept this date as Holy Cross Day.
So today we turn our focus to the Holy Cross of Christ.
The cross is one of those words, one of those religious concepts, that has a tendency to get stripped of its significance simply because we are exposed to it on such a regular basis. We see it in churches; on signs and bumper stickers; worn as jewelry; used as imagery in art, film, and television - and because of this we can easily forget what a powerful and even troubling image it was for the first century Christians. Indeed, the cross stands at the very center of our faith, and if we in any way have become desensitized to its central place in our lives and in our faith, this Holy Cross Day offers us a golden opportunity to rediscover its significance; its power.
And to this end I think a good place to turn is our reading this morning from Paul's letter to the Christians in Corinth where he says, "the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God..... for God has made foolish the wisdom of the world."
In order to get a sense of what Paul is talking about here, it is important to realize that the very fact Jesus died on a cross was a huge problem. If this is the way God chose to be revealed to the world, those early Christians reasoned, then they needed to rethink everything they thought they knew about God, the world, and their faith. While they had anticipated a Messiah who would come and exercise power by overcoming their enemies through bloodshed and battle - this Messiah came in weakness and died in the process.
When Paul wrote these words, the cross was a symbol of imperial power. It signified the absolute power of Rome over the nations and peoples that were subjected to this power structure. So, this messiah, Jesus, proved to be a complete surprise. Not only did he not take on Roman authorities in the way that was long expected, he freely gave up his life and placed it into their hands.
So, the question is why. Why did Jesus die in this way?
If you were among the people conquered by Rome and you offended against this power and authority, Rome could have you stripped, flogged, and nailed to a tree until you were dead. But here's the rub . . . There were many so-called Messiahs surfacing around the first century, and when they got too troublesome, each of them in turn was killed by the authorities, and the movements they led were brutally suppressed. No one except specialist-historians remembers them today. So what was different about Jesus? Why do we remember him, worship him, follow him, and venerate the cross on which he died? The gospels attest, of course, that he was tortured and killed by the Romans - just like all these other so-called messiahs - and Jesus' followers were dispersed. The difference in the case of Jesus was that his followers went around, after he had been crucified, saying that he had risen from the dead - that they had seen him, touched, him, talked with him. And those who spoke of this resurrection were prepared to die rather than deny what they had seen. So, for Christians, the cross must always be seen in light of the resurrection.
It is the resurrection of Jesus that puts the cross in its proper perspective. It becomes the means by which the world's most powerful powers are defeated, in the light of eternity, and proven to be impotent shams and frauds. And this is why we may say - why we DO say - that we are SAVED by what happened on the cross and the resurrection which followed. Because the event that took place on the cross set us free from the domination of even the world's most powerful powers. It shows that the powers of this world will never have the final say. And this is what Paul is suggesting when he says, "God has made foolish the wisdom of the world."
So, what now? Today - as I have already mentioned - on this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we commemorate the anniversary of what is believed to be the discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem. But, also - by extension - today is a day on which WE exalt the cross, when we lift it up and honour it, because of all that God has done for us by means of that Holy Cross.
But here's the thing. This all has implications for how we - as followers of Jesus - are called to live. Jesus said, "If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant also be." And, several times throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that they must take up their own crosses and follow him. When we see what has been done for us on the cross, we must allow our lives to be molded by it. Jesus was persecuted by political and religious authorities; he was flogged and beaten and mocked; he was betrayed by those whom he loved. And yet, his response was to die so that the whole world - maybe even especially those who put him there - may be reunited with God. And through his resurrection, this plan was fulfilled.
Henry Nouwen says,
"There you have it: the love of God is an unconditional love, and only that love can empower us to live together without violence. When we know that God loves us deeply and will always go on loving us, whoever we are and whatever we do, it becomes possible to expect no more of our fellow men and women than they are able to give, to forgive them generously when they have offended us, and always to respond to their hostility with love. By doing so we make visible a new way of being human and a new way of responding to our world problems.
Mrs. Aquino realized that hatred for President Marcos could not lead to peace in the Philippines. Martin Luther King understood that hating whites could not lead to true equality among Americans. Gandhi knew that hating the British could not bring about genuine independence in India. A new world without slaughter and massacre can never be the fruit of hatred. It is the fruit of the love of "your God in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike." It is the fruit of God's love which we limited humans are to make visible in our lives in accordance with the words of Jesus: "You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his."
Whenever, contrary to the world's vindictiveness, we love our enemy, we exhibit something of the perfect love of Jesus on the cross. Whenever we forgive instead of allowing resentment to fester within us; bless instead of cursing one another; tend one another's wounds instead of rubbing salt into them; offer encouragement instead of discouraging one another; offer hope instead of driving one another to despair; embrace rather than harassing one another; welcome instead of offering a cold-shoulder; praise instead of maligning others . . . in short, whenever we opt for and not against one another, we venerate the cross of Jesus . . . we make God's unconditional love visible; we are diminishing violence and giving birth to the kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim . . . till all the world adore his sacred name?
May we lift high the cross through the faithfulness of the way we follow Christ.