Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC, Prior of Holy Cross MonasteryHoly Cross Day - Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Some days in our Church calendar leave me a conflicted... I suppose as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, this day, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, perhaps should not be one of them... but it is.
There is much that is wonderful and glorious in the history of Christianity, but nobody will be shocked if I also say that there is also much that is vile and wicked. Some of the very best in human nature has been drawn out, encouraged, and nurtured by the Church. And some of the very worst in human nature has, sadly, found encouragement in the Church as well. Our history is surely mixed.
So days like today, that lend themselves to a triumphant celebration make me nervous. Yes we have much to celebrate, but we also have much for which we can only hang our heads in shame.
The Gospel reading for today sounds a note of caution: “Now is the judgment of this world... the rulers of this world will be driven out...”
The discomfort that I feel hangs right on that bit of Gospel. For when we sing triumphant hymns and celebrate, too often, for me, it has the flavor of this world – triumph defined in human terms.
Yet at the same time, Jesus was very clear. We must celebrate as those at a wedding banquet must celebrate – a miserable, dour Christianity is just as dominated by this world as a Christianity that lacks retrospection and remorse.
This is the conflict I carry into my thinking about today – the exaltation of the cross must be a wedding banquet and a time for reflection and remorse.
It gives me great comfort that, as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross I have another vast tradition to strengthen me – the Benedictine tradition. That tradition calls me to stability and to balance. Stability requires me, as uncomfortable as I may be, to stay and wrestle with my discomfort. And balance assures me that the tension between celebration and remorse is healthy and appropriate – to leave out either end of the spectrum would be to loose balance.
Early Christians didn't have the symbol of the cross in such a prominent place as we do. In their day we would have seen more fish than crosses. Seeing crosses as often and is as many places as we do anesthetizes us to the horror in front of us. The plain meaning of the cross is brutal and horrific.
We no longer use crucifixion as a means of killing those we wish, in the name of justice, to kill. Were Jesus executed by the state of Texas, we might have a syringe, the tool of lethal injection, as the symbol of our faith... Or New York of the 1960s would have given us the electric chair... If Jesus had been executed a hundred years ago we might be looking at the hangman's noose or the rifles of a firing squad... Churches in France might be littered with representations of guillotines. In England there might be stakes with kindling piled around.
If we try to imagine any of those symbols above and behind this altar, perhaps we get a glimpse of how the cross might have spoken to those early Christians. It is traumatic and discomforting.
In exalting the cross, we are taking something that is brutal, painful, deadly... and resurrecting it in a most hopeful and life giving way... Of course, we don't do that... God does that.
Part of my discomfort with today has to do with looking back. We don't see the true horror of the cross as a cruel human tool. The cross in human hands, our hands, is an abomination. Only through God's redeeming love can it show love. We need to look back in honesty. The story of the cross is the story of redemption being possible for the most evil of things. We loose a great deal if we let the true depth of that evil slide out of the picture. For we are no different than the crowds who called for Jesus to be nailed to the cross... no different than the public servants who dutifully executed the task.
The other part of my discomfort has to do with looking forward. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow. But I have the sense that, starting perhaps with Emperor Constantine and continuing to my own life, too often we take up the cross and lead rather than following. Hymns like “Lift High the Cross”, which I happen to love, enhance this danger. They make us feel very good about raising up the cross, and along with that comfortable, good feeling, comes the temptation to carry the cross in directions that feel good and comfortable... But Jesus does not lead us in feel-good, comfortable ways.
It is very easy, as humans, to beguile ourselves into thinking the cross is leading us exactly where we wanted to go in the first place... It is quite convenient. It is quite sinful.
When members of the Ku Klux Klan, in our fairly recent history, burned crosses as a weapon of racial hatred and terror, they were following their own desires. They were not following the Cross of Jesus. Anders Breivic, the mass killer in Norway, who claims to be some sort of Christian, was surely following his own heart, not the Cross. From this point in history we can look at the Crusades and say that, how ever well intentioned, however faithful those who who went, they were not following the Cross of Jesus. In our Anglican tradition, the reformers who brutally killed their opponents (and that includes all sides) were not following the Cross.
We could develop a never ending list of times when we, human beings, Christians, have taken up our cross and gone exactly where we wanted to go, not following Jesus, but following our own hearts. But the only list that is important for me is the list of when I have forced the cross to take me where I want to go rather than where Jesus leads.
That is half the story. It must be faced. We dishonor this day if we do not bring to mind our failures and our frailty, if we do not confess and humbly repent.
The other half of the story is the endless list of times when people did take up their cross and follow... often at great personal cost... even to the point of death. Martin Luther King springs to mind. And Dietrich Bonhȍffer. Oskar Schindler and Oscar Romero. Constance and her companions. Hundreds of rescue workers on September 11th. Various Holy Cross brothers and countless Franciscans and Benedictines. Some acts were heroic. Others were tiny, hardly-noticed, faithful acts.
We could develop a list that never ends when we, human beings, Christians, have taken up our cross and faithfully followed without regard to cost or comfort. And in honest humility I have to be prepared to make my own list of when I have been a faithful follower. Not to do so dishonors the day.
The power of the cross is this: that something so loathsome and so detestable can be transformed by God into something so wonderful. It is death and resurrection.
That is the transformation that we need, that I need in my heart – that I can die to this world and be resurrected to God's Kingdom – not as some far off, fantastic, future thing, but here and now. Through God it is possible.
Let us walk in the light of Jesus, taking up our crosses and having the humility to follow.