Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Charles Mizelle, n/OHC
Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 2010
The Old Rugged Cross of Hollywood
In the name of God who calls us to celebration, who calls us to pursue community in our world, and who calls us to compassion in the midst of all human suffering. Amen!
Los Angeles is famous for its freeway corridors and one of its most infamous is the Cahuenga Pass—the Cahuenga Pass is a 2 mile stretch slicing through the Hollywood Hills connecting the city of Los Angeles with the San Fernando Valley. Traffic moves so slowly through this freeway link you’ll have time to take in some of LA’s most notable landmarks: Universal Studio’s and the City Walk theme park, the Hollywood Bowl, the John Anson Ford amphitheater, and then that celebrity hotspot that will always be near and dear to my own heart, “Charles For Total Image”, the first day spa I ever owned. (It was the 80’s.)
But one of the most notable Hollywood landmarks in Cahuenga Pass is a large white cross, up on a hill, (a hill that could even mimic Golgatha), illuminated at night, impossible for drivers to miss regardless of which direction they are driving, standing silent witness and watching over all of Hollywood.
I lived in LA for over 22 years and I most likely drove by this cross a thousand times. Occasionally I wondered who put there, who cares for it, and why hasn’t some anti-christian, separation-of-church-and-state-fanatic, complained. But I never once heard about this cross in the news. It just endured. Like a patron saint for freeway drivers the cross was always there looking over our frantic lives. And if my recent Google Search was accurate the old rugged cross of Cahuenga Pass is still standing and watching over Hollywood.
Now a bit more than 100 miles outside of Los Angeles stands another cross. This one stands in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It is maybe seen by a handful a people a year. But chances are YOU have heard of this cross. It stands on a small patch of land in the Mojave Desert as a war memorial cross. It has not faired nearly as well as the Hollywood Cross. In 2001 a self-identified Roman Catholic brought a law suit claiming the presence of the cross on a government owned preserve violated the First Amendment. The ACLU got involved and quickly two opposing sides formed: one for religious freedom and liberty, another to remove all images of religion from public places. The saga of the Mojave Desert War Memorial Cross has been covered by national media, the subject of political talking heads, with its destiny ending up at the Supreme Court. Even some last minute wrangling to change ownership of the land where the cross stood met with defeat.
When it comes to symbols of the Christian faith, there is no more powerful of a symbol than the cross. The mere mention of a cross can insight devotion, reverence, hope, even awe, but for others it is despised, maligned, ridiculed, discounted, denied, and yes, hated. For Christians the cross holds an incredible special place in their faith. But I am not so sure the cross belongs to just the Christian community. As symbol the cross is complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and is so much bigger than we can understand.
One symbol of the cross I find most fascinating is the cross as jewelry. Throughout my professional career I had a hobby of noticing how frequently a cross was worn as jewelry. Just about every woman I knew, and many men, have a cross in their jewelry collection. Rarely was it worn as symbol of faith. Maybe it was grandmothers cross, a family heirloom, a gift from a significant other, or just a treasured piece of jewelry from a favorite designer. Crosses are “in” when it comes to jewelry. Part of my hobby in observing this cultural phenomenon is knowing that the crucifixion of Christ on a cross happened in a very small window of time. If Christ had lived only a few decades earlier or later, most likely he would not have been put to death by crucifixion on a cross. Most likely he would had been stoned. The gospels give us several accounts of Jesus slipping through the hands of an angry mob who were ready to stone him to death. Shortly after his death, resurrection and ascension we have the account of Stephen being stoned to death in the book of Acts. So here’s my question: If Jesus had been stoned instead of hung on a cross, would we all want to wear little rocks around our neck? (Maybe I should leave that as a rhetorical question.)
Today is an important Feast Day for us. After all our name is the Order of the Holy Cross. And we celebrate this feast at Holy Cross Monastery. And as Christians the sacrificial act of Christ giving his life on a cross is the center point of our faith. So why am I fascinated with jewelry crosses worn by millions more as a cultural symbol than a symbol of faith and religion? Because it goes to the point that the cross is embedded in our psychic DNA. And when I say “our psychic DNA” I do not mean us as Christians, but us as human beings. The cross is a symbol that reaches beyond the walls of churches and cathedrals into the wider culture. It is a symbol that has permeated all of humankind, both Christian believer and non-believer. When the Red Cross arrives to give aid in an emergency they will be a welcome sight to both Christian and non-Christian. I never heard of anyone refusing to fly SwissAir airlines because their logo is a big white cross. Even the Persian rug in my cell, woven by nomadic peoples of Iran, has a plethora of crosses in it. So many that the cross is actually a dominant design theme of the rug. Think about it--there is no corner of the globe, there is no 3rd or 4th world country you can escape to where the symbol of the cross is not known. Crawl into a cave to see the hieroglyphics of long ago or look at the graffiti of today and you’ll find the symbol of the cross. As symbol the cross is inescapable. It is as if God has impregnated the cross for all time and for all people. Why?
The cross is the great symbol of the Christian tradition but it is also a great symbol of the human experience. Wether you encounter the cross over a freeway or in a desert it says so many things to each of us at the same time it is hard to unpack its full meaning. To a Christian the cross speaks of salvation, redemption, forgiveness, transformation, even union with God. But to all of humankind it speaks to our interconnectedness, our oneness with all. It speaks to our brokenness, to the dilemma of the human condition, and shows the way to hope. Like it or not, accept it on not, the cross is constantly calling to all of humankind to return to our home in God.
Today’s Gospel text from John records Jesus as saying “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”. Biblical scholars have always seen this as a direct reference to Moses and the young Hebrew nation lifting a serpent on a cross to bring protection and healing during their 40 years of roaming the Sinai Desert. This pre-Babylonian symbol remains to this day as the symbol (logo) of the American Medical Association. There is another symbol of the cross the Hebrews gave us during their 40 years of being lost in the desert. God instructed them to build a tabernacle, a place of worship, a place to encounter God’s direct presence. Many engineers have tried to replicate the design of the wilderness tabernacle according to the blueprint that God gave to Moses and is recorded in the Book of Exodus. If you have ever launched on a read-through-the-Bible-campaign in a year it is these laborious chapters of Exodus, seemingly filled with only minutia where many give up on trying to read through the Bible. But there is a beautiful gem there that mostly goes unnoticed. God gave explicit instructions as to how the 12 tribes of Israel were to set up their camps around the tabernacle. Three tribes to the north, 3 tribes to the south. Three tribes to the west and 3 to the east. From God’s “arial” point of view this would form the shape of a perfect cross moving through the wilderness. And in the cross section of this human cross was where God tabernacled with His people. The story of the Exodus and the people of Israel wandering through the wilderness is the most frequently repeated story in scripture. And I see it as the first parable of scripture.
Later, the temples built by both David and Solomon followed this design element. In fact, it is a design element that has endured to this day. When you enter a Cathedral, an arial view will reveal it is shaped like a cross with the nave forming the vertical bar, the transept forming the horizontal. The intersection of the two is where you will find the altar, where God wants to tabernacle with us.
Not even a Dan Brown novel could reveal to us all the places the symbol of the cross appears throughout the world. Like the seemingly unnoticed, unbothered, old-rugged cross of Hollywood the cross is always before us. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is hidden. In every land, every culture, every demographic, every time zone and every climate zone the cross of Jesus is there calling us back to God. Calling us to the intersection of life where God waits tabernacle with you and I.