St. Andrews, Newark, NJ
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
RCL - Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2009
The Crucifix in the Monastic Gardens at Holy Cross Monastery
Originally Uploaded by Cloister-Walk
I’ve never been to Jerusalem or to the Holy Land. And I’m not at all sure I want to go. Which is surprising. I’ve been to lots of places and generally enjoy travel. I’ve lived in Europe. I’ve been to Egypt and New Zealand and, yes, even to Canada. And my current position as Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross requires that I travel every year to South Africa. And since the advice of one of our venerable senior brothers was “Never fly direct,” it’s certainly conceivable that I could take the long way around and visit the Holy Land. But I don’t have much desire to do that.
Strange. I have a dear friend who regularly leads pilgrimages there. I have met countless people who have journeyed there, studied there, lived there. They all tell me how profoundly and irreversibly it changed the way they read the Bible and the way they hear the stories of Jesus that we have heard from our youth. To walk where Jesus walked, to bathe in the same rivers, to see the same hillsides, to know that you do in fact go up to Jerusalem and down to Dead Sea and north to the Galilee. It all gets fleshed out for them; it all becomes real in a way it wasn’t before. It’s like the difference between reading a map and actually being in a place. Both may be accurate perceptions, but they are totally different experiences, the first only a sketch or shadow of the second, helpful in navigating the terrain a little more confidently, perhaps, but pale in comparison.
I’ve also met people who’ve come back from trips to the Holy Land totally disillusioned: disillusioned by the development of the cities and the countryside, by the crowds of people, by the tourist and pilgrimage trade, by the crass commercialization of religious faith, by the dirtiness, the chaos and the political and cultural violence. They went seeking happy peasants, and what they found were people not much different than themselves struggling to make a living in one of the most emotionally and politically charged pieces of real estate in the world, a small piece of the earth claimed as sacred, as holy, as home by three world religions and by many different tribes and nations. It apparently didn’t look or feel at all like those colorful drawings we saw in Sunday school as children, and these folks came back profoundly disappointed. Whatever it is they wanted, the Holy Land could not give them.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than Jerusalem itself, always it seems a spiritual and political hothouse—a small place, crowded, fought over, jealously guarded and deeply revered, deeply longed for and loved by generations, sung about in songs and painted by artists, written about by travelers and dreamed about for ages: “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blessed.” “Jerusalem my happy home, when shall I come to thee?”
I fear it may be all too much to bear, too much to take in. So I stay in New York, or South Africa, or New Zealand, thank you very much.
But people do still go to the Holy Land and especially to Jerusalem and they have been going there for millennia. They go on pilgrimage. They go to be close to lands and skies and places that they have heard about all their lives and dreamed about and prayed about. They go to walk where Moses or David walked and where Mary and Jesus and the apostles and the first Christians lived. They want to be where it all happened, where Jesus taught and healed and preached and died. They want to see it with their own eyes, touch it with their own hands, hear and smell and taste and walk that place. It’s not unusual or surprising. Look at how many make their way each day to that great hole in the earth in Lower Manhattan that was the World Trade Center. They want to see it with their own eyes, to be there. And who knows why? Who can explain it?
Our feast today, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (or Holy Cross Day), is a feast rooted in this desire of human beings to see it with their own eyes, as much as they can, as much as is humanly possible. Its origins lie in the restoration of the Christian holy sites begun in earnest in the fourth century under the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. They decided that it was time to locate and honor those places that were so much part of the story of Jesus, and by extension, our story as well. And no place was more central than that place where our Lord was crucified for us and where he rose from the dead—what came to be known today as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The great triumph of that effort was the popular belief that on that sacred site, the very wood on which our Lord had suffered had been recovered through a miraculous turn of events. And that wood was presented as a sign and a deep and living connection to our Lord’s saving act. That precious relic was offered for the veneration of all who came, and over the centuries they came by the hundreds of thousands to see that wood, to visit that hill of Golgotha and the nearby tomb where Jesus rested in death and rose again to life that first Easter, the whole site now covered by one enormous structure connecting these various sites and fought over by Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and other Christians for centuries. Indeed the competition is so fierce and the territorial rights so volatile that Moslem and Jewish authorities have to guard the peace to keep the Christians from fighting with each other, as regularly happens.
It is, to this very day, a chaotic scene. And people often wonder if Jesus would recognize it? And more to the point, what would he think of it? My opinion is that he’s seen it all, accepts it all, and that nothing would surprise him.
We may, of course, dismiss it. Our faith in Christ has never been dependent upon a visit to certain sacred places but rather on faith in the Lord Jesus himself. And all the layers of tradition, superstition, sectarian rivalry, and religious tourism make such places easy targets for our skepticism.
But the truth is that there is still power in such places. It is, I think, the power to see things differently, to catch an alternative view of life, to be jolted or shocked out of our usual ways of experiencing our world. It’s one of the reasons that people still go on pilgrimages. But the funny thing is, you can never predict when these moments or experiences will happen or even if they will happen at all. All you can do is be open to them, when God in his mercy uses an event, a place, a person to draw the curtain aside to let us catch a glimpse of something more, a glimpse than can be either consoling or troubling, or both.
I was reminded of this as I was reading Forward Day by Day this past week. There is a printed version, as you know, frequently available at the back of Episcopal churches, but it is also available on line on the Internet, and if you have access to a computer, you can read it and also post a personal response to the daily reflection to share with others. Last Tuesday, the reflection focused on the line from St. Marks’ Gospel about the women who went to the tomb early that first Easter: “Terror and amazement had seized them.” It was a simple and beautiful reflection about the author going with his grandson on his first roller coaster ride seeing in his grandson’s face that peculiar combination of “terror and amazement” that St. Mark described.
But what really caught my attention and stopped me in my tracks was a response of someone named Rick Meyer, from I know not where. Let me read you what he wrote:
In 1993 I visited Jerusalem and took the tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; it was nice but I would have liked to stay. I noticed that many people were just sitting along the side of the room up by the cross. So in ‘97 when I returned I set aside a whole day to sit and watch. There is a front stairs that everyone comes up and a back stairs were people leave. I sat on a small bench next to the back stairs. The place was jammed. After a few hours a woman came up the back stairs. She was dressed in modest clothing [eastern European] with a shawl over her head. She got on her knees and [crying] started crawling through the crowd towards the cross and the rock. People started to see her and it got eerily quiet up there as literally thousands of people moved out of her way. She moved forward, never looking up, making the sign of the cross and crying as she approached the cross. She reached in and touched the rock and reacted as though she had received an electric shock, then crying and sobbing [and never looking up] she crawled backwards to the stairs and left. It shook me up. I walked downstairs and stood in the line to go into the tomb. The floor around the tomb area is cracked concrete in bad repair. It was noisy, as thousands of people, speaking many languages, waited their turn to go in. Off to the left I saw the woman again; on her knees same as before. As people noticed her, again, it became so quiet as thousands of people moved out of her way to let her pass. She crawled as before over the broken rocks to the tomb; the priests at the tomb moved out of her way, people already in the tomb, seeing her, moved aside. As before she never looked up, making the sign of the cross, crying and sobbing. Then she backed out again, head down, crawling over the broken concrete, and was gone. We all stood in silence for a long time. I was asking myself why I wasn’t crying and crawling on my knees towards my savior. I think others were doing the same. It haunts me still.
And reading it, it haunts me too. The Holy Cross: our salvation, our hope, our redemption, our resurrection. We’ve so domesticated it, so neutralized it, become so familiar with it, that we put it on our walls and on our steeples and wear it around our necks and make feature length motion pictures abut it and paint it and sing it. But sometimes, we are simply called to or forced to worship it, that is, to come there before God’s power emptied of all glory and glorious beyond our own emptiness and like those women in the Gospel and that woman on her knees, be seized by “terror and amazement”… reduced to tears of grief for our own broken hearts and our own broken world and to tears of gratitude for the tender mercy of God who in ways that surpass our understanding, enters into all and redeems it all and transforms it all.
“I was asking myself why wasn’t I crying and crawling on my knees towards my savior…It haunts me still.”
No wonder I’m reluctant to go to Jerusalem. Who knows what I’ll find there? Who knows what or who will find me there?
But, the truth is that God is persistent and endlessly creative… and if we don’t go to Jerusalem, Jerusalem will come to us. Here we are this morning, the church of Jesus Christ, gathered in this place, in prayer around this book and this table where the mystery of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection is being played out yet one more time for us and in us. Who knows what will happen?
Don’t be afraid, angels often say. But don’t be surprised either if some day it will be as if you too received an electric shock…and in the power of that shock, go on to live a changed life, a fuller and richer and more loving life, indeed a new life in Christ.
May today be that day—for you and for me. May every day be that day!
That is the promise and the power of the Holy Cross.