Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC Superior
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Votive Mass of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
This morning at Matins we remembered the life and witness of Bp. James Hannington and his companions who were martyred for their Christian faith in 1885 in what is now Uganda.
As is often the case, the situation there was complex. Colonial powers (English, French, others) were moving into the country and the young kabaka or king, Mwanga, was alarmed. He feared that the new religion these Christian missionaries were introducing would bring down the wrath of the ancestors. He feared a rapidly changing social order. He feared the elimination of his royal powers and privileges. And so he responded with violence. He ordered the bishop and his party killed. The next year he had many of his own pages tortured and burned alive for their faith because they would not or could not conform to ancient tribal customs. Still others were eliminated. Mwanga, the king, was between 16 and 18 years old when all of this took place.
Mwanga was in no sense an innocent. But neither was he a monster. He was someone caught up in a political and social upheaval whose response, driven by fear, was both immoral and ineffective, but not, unfortunately, surprising. He did, by the way, go on to lead several insurrections against the British and late in his life converted to the Anglican faith.
As we do on feasts of martyrs, we began this morning’s service with the invitatory, setting the theme for the feast. It was: "Christ calls the faithful to embrace his cross. Come let us adore him."
I have said these words regularly for over 25 years. But this morning I was struck by the ambiguity of the invitation. Exactly whose cross are we being invited to embrace? Christ’s... or our own?
The answer, of course, is both... always both. And in saying this we come up against the mystery of suffering. For in all genuine suffering — whether we recognize it or not — the thin membrane or veil or curtain between Christ’s life and our own is pierced, pulled aside, or, in the words of scripture, torn from top to bottom. The one cross — Christ’s — is certainly not the same as the other — yours or mine. But in the wonderful economy of God, they each illuminate the other, concretize and enflesh and give meaning to the other.
This was true for Bp. Hannington and his companions in 1885 when in the midst of the complex marriage of British colonialism and Christian evangelism he saw the image of the cross of Jesus shining through.
The bishop’s last words: "Go tell Mwanga that I have purchased a road into Uganda by my blood" are a ringing testament to the Christian hope, that out of death, and paradoxically through death, comes life, new life, larger life.
This was true for those Ugandan martyrs the following year. Though they may not have been able to express it as eloquently as did the bishop, but they knew that they had been called to a greater loyalty, to a greater king, one whose claims trump the demands and desires of a frightened young tribal chieftain, indeed of any human monarch or ruler or power
This was true for Archbishop Janani Luwum who in 1975 went to his death in Uganda as a witness to justice and Christian charity in opposition to the mad dictator, Idi Amin.
And it is true for us here today.
Of course we pray that we may be spared. And like Jesus, we neither desire nor intend nor orchestrate our own sufferings. To do so would be madness. But like Jesus and like the martyrs, we embrace the sufferings that are sent us when they cannot be averted. We freely say: Yes. We even, dare we say it, embrace them.
"Christ calls the faithful to embrace his cross."
Our own crosses take many shapes, many forms: physical or emotional suffering, diminishment, betrayal, limitation, failure, and ultimately death. But the cross of Jesus has power to illumine and suffuse with meaning and hope these dark corners.
It is important to remind ourselves that we don’t have to like our crosses. But to embrace, to say yes, is to acknowledge and consent to a wholly other order. It is to confess to ourselves and sometimes to others and occasionally even to the world that yes, even here, God is not absent. It is to confess that even here — perhaps especially here — God can be found. Even here, in sharing with Jesus the often painful predicament that is the human condition, we are not abandoned or left alone.
Our morning worship climaxes with the recitation of the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zachariah. Its antiphon for the feast of martyrs includes the following words of encouragement: “These are the ones who have come safely through the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The cross of Jesus that we celebrate today is the source and symbol of that wondrous cleansing. It is, in all its scandal, a promise that suffering and death do not have the final word. The final word for Jesus, for the martyrs and for us is always: Life. Life into death. Life through death. Life beyond death.
At our midday service today we prayed: “Happy are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” This Eucharistic meal is not yet that supper in its all its fullness... but it is a foretaste. Let us feast together now, confident that what we share here will strengthen us and lead to embrace, to consent, to say yes, to the cross and to life.
“Christ calls the faithful to embrace his cross. Come let us adore him.”