Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
Holy Cross Day - Friday, September 14, 2012
Every cross has a story to tell. Every cross embodies a theology. The first cross, the cross on which our Lord hung, is no longer present to us as an object – as a fragment, a relic, on our altar this morning. But as an object which can tell us what happened and embody its meaning, alas, that cross is with us no more. So every Christian culture has its own crosses. Each one says something not only about the Gospel as given – what the text says – but about the Gospel received, what we think it means. Our icon cross, from the early 1970's, by Fr. John Walsted, formerly a member of the Order, School of Novgorod adapted to the Order of the Holy Cross particularly: the Christ floating without nails, serene, seemingly without pain, surrounded by events of his life and by people special to this cross, in this place. What does that say? Or the crucifix on the wall, brought back from Oberammergau by Fr. Huntington: Almost life size, realistic, the suffering clear, but also somewhat stylized, and by that sylization, a bit removed from us. What does that say? From the crucifix in Catholic homes and the plain, unadorned Protestant cross of my childhood, to the famous and somewhat disturbing Salvador Dali crucifix, viewing Christ from above, the one angle none of us could have achieved: sub specie aeternitatis. Because they are of us, of our world’s images, we think we understand them. But each carries its own interpretation of the Passion, and each embodies a theory of the victory of the Resurrection.
This morning I want to spend some time thinking not about the Cross as an idea from the text of scripture, but about a particular cross, and see where that might take us.
In the tiny town of Ruthwell, on the north side of the Solway firth, close to the water, southeast of Dumfries and hard by Annan, in what is today Scotland, but in what was once part of the Northumbrian Kingdom of Bernicia, is the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon crosses. The Ruthwell Cross was probably erected sometime between 700 and 740. It stood almost 18 feet tall for more than nine centuries, until in 1642 the General Assembly of the Scottish national church ordered it and others like it hacked down and destroyed. The fragments lay unprotected in the church yard for 160 years and more, when they were gathered together again and ultimately restored inside the parish church.
The Ruthwell Cross was a preaching cross. It marked a place to which people would gather when a priest or preacher or missionary came, to instruct and teach the faith, to baptize and confirm and bless, and to preach the word to a tribal people whose life was doubtless nasty, brutish and short, but who had been captivated by this Jesus and by his good news. No more Tiu, Woden, Thor and Freya, Saturn, the sun and the moon, though their days remain each week – perhaps just in case. In their world of disease and deprivation and, especially, of violence on every level, violence in family life, violence in villages and among clans, violence with outsiders of all kinds, violence all the way up to the King himself, no one was safe for very long, and as for pagans, when you died, who knew what was next? Life and the glory of life was largely about fighting and being ready to fight. Your life was like a sparrow flying out of a stormy night into one end of a bright, fire-warmed hall and then out the other. Who knew what came before or what awaits us after? The Cross of Christ brought light and hope and another way to live.
The Ruthwell Cross itself was a teacher, both showing and speaking. It shows the faith in a particular, perhaps unique, way: on one side there are sculptured panels of St. John the Evangelist and his eagle, the Visitation, the washing of the Savior’s feet, the healing of the man born blind, the Annunciation and the Crucifixion (probably added later), and on the other, the evangelist Matthew with his attribute, a man, John the Baptist or perhaps God the Father holding the Lamb of God, Christ treading on beasts [ref. Ps. 91: “You shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet”], the hermits Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert, and the Flight into Egypt. One side shows the Lord’s life, and the other makes reference to Christ conquering wildness, to exile and the desert, to lonely places, of which surely Ruthwell was one.
But this cross not only instructs through the eyes. It speaks. Carved on the cross in runes are lines from the greatest early religious poem in English, The Dream of the Rood. The poet has a vision, a mystical experience, in which he sees a great cross surrounded by light, encrusted with gold and jewels, “stained with the flowing of blood, adorned with treasure.” And then the cross speaks: “Thæt wæs geara iu, (ic thæt gyta geman), thæt ic wæs aheawen... It was years ago, I still remember it, that I was hewn down...” The cross stood out in the open elements, in the rain and the wind and the cold deserted edgelands of the Solway, speaking through the runes, speaking to all who will listen the story of the crucifixion as the cross experienced it and as the cross has come to understand it. The runes carved on the cross pick up in fragments the narrative of the poem at its most dramatic point:
"Then the young Hero - He was God Almighty - firm and unflinching, stripped himself; He mounted on the high cross, brave in the sight of many, when he was minded to redeem mankind. Then I trembled when the Hero clasped me; yet I durst not bow to the earth, fall to the level of the ground, but I must needs stand firm.
"As a rood was I raised up; I bore aloft the mighty king, the Lord of heaven; I durst not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails; the wounds are still plain to view in me, gaping gashes of malice; I durst not do hurt to any of them. They bemocked us both together. I was all bedewed with blood, shed from the Man’s side, after He had sent forth His Spirit. I have endured many stern trials on the hill; I saw the God of hosts violently stretched out; darkness with its clouds had covered the Lord’s corpse, the fair radiance; a shadow went forth, dark beneath the clouds. All creation wept, lamented the King’s death; Christ was on the cross. Crist wæs on rode."
This cross presents Christ as a vigorous young warrior, determined, forthright, brave, filled with courage, as the people for whom it was carved hoped their own sons would be, strong and resolute, fearless and ready for battle. But this Christ is without weapons or armor or the retinue of loyal followers that any good Northumbrian warrior would have had or would have been part of. Braver than all. Fulfilling the ideal of their culture. The best of the best, going to his death, his blood streaming forth, the universe darkening, covering its Lord’s body. All creation wept. Crist wæs on rode. Perhaps like the poet theirs also was a mystical experience as they approached the Cross. It changed them. It changed their world.
Well, that was 1,300 years ago or more. What do we have to do with ancient Scottish coastlands, with mystical dream visions, with speaking crosses, with a form of English we no longer easily understand? And in particular, What do we have to do with a Christ represented by an overcharged Anglo-Saxon warrior, stripping for battle, practically leaping onto the cross in a fit of testosterone-driven frenzy? Surely this is not the Galilean peasant / healer / teacher / rabbi / wisdom figure / prophet / revolutionary we have come to know as we have studied scripture? What does all this have to do with us?
I would say in answer, More than we might want to acknowledge.
Every encounter with the Cross, indeed, every encounter with the divine at all, requires that we lay aside our present preoccupations, our day to day understandings, our busy minds, and open ourselves to something new. To do that, we often have to move out into a desert place where there is nothing, perhaps, but the Cross. We hope to find there the Jesus, the Christ, whom we would love to meet unmediated, as he was and in the fullness of what he is now, but who instead comes to us, who must come to us, in forms we can understand. Their form was a warrior. What is ours?
Those who reconstruct the world and likely life and personality of Jesus, Crossan and Meier and Chilton and all their friends, agree on one thing about Jesus if on nothing else: He was far from passive. He was young, he was energetic, he was purposeful and determined, and he placed himself into the last week of his life with something definite in mind. Maybe instead of the image of a warrior we might prefer the image of the lamb, also on this cross, so peaceful and so sweet. But scripture reminds us that if Jesus is the sacrifical lamb, he was not in the end simply the meek lamb led to the slaughter, but the lamb leading a band - a warrior band, perhaps - of 144,000, wherever he goes. Some lamb. Maybe, just maybe, our warrior-obsessed friends in the eighth century Kingdom of Bernicia are onto something. Maybe the warrior image has something to it.
Every cross has a story to tell, and no matter where it came from, it can speak to us. Every cross speaks of more than suffering: Every cross speaks of victory. The paradox of death conquering death, of a new energy let loose in the world through the life and death of this remarkable young man, whose death means we need no longer fear death. The powers have been rearranged, whether they are the pagan gods of our ancestors or the powers within each of us which conspire to paralyze the good we would do if we only could. Well, we can. If there is one message we can take from the great Ruthwell Cross and The Dream of the Rood, it may be this: This young warrior has unloosed the bonds of death, and now we are free to find his courage and strength and energy and determination in and for our own lives, to join his band of loyal followers, to feast with him in the great hall of heaven, no longer frightened sparrows flitting in and out of the light, but living in the light, his light, children of light. No longer aliens and strangers in desert and exile lands, but the joyous companions of the Lord victorious, who has won the battle for us.