Today we have gathered together to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. Or have we? I have no doubt that within this chapel there are many differing views of what the cross means, its purpose in the Christ story and its meaning or possible lack of meaning in our own modern lives. Many people of faith have what I believe is best called a love-hate relationship with the cross. We love it because it is a symbol of our childhoods and place in society. We have mediated before its image countless times and can’t help but make the sign of the cross every now and then. On the other hand, we might let ourselves step back and look at it critically and we walk away with an icky feeling in our stomachs. What does the cross mean, can it rightly be called a symbol of life or is it better a symbol of torture and death?
If you are asking these questions, you are in good company. The earliest followers of Jesus had what might be called a love-hate relationship with the cross. The first two centuries of Christians mostly scorned the image of the cross. They could not see it apart from its horrific use to kill not only Jesus but also countless numbers of their loved ones. The cross was an emblem of racism, bigotry and vile hatred. The very word cross made their stomachs twist into knots, so much so, that they used a symbolic replacement for the word “cross” in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. The symbol slightly changed the appearance of the cross and added connotations of hope. Many historians believe the original “sign of the cross” made on one’s own person was not a cross at all but actually an “X” for the first letter of Christ in Greek and made only on the forehead. Only over the centuries did it evolve into the grandiose cross we now draw on ourselves. Matter of fact, it wasn’t until the fourth century, that is 400 years after Jesus’s death, that cross became a hallmark symbol across Christendom and a mainstay in sacred imagery.
People of faith have, since the beginning, struggled with how to experience and approach the cross. However, since the dawn of legalized Christianity, under Emperor Constantine, few have felt allowed to ask the tough questions of the cross and Christianity. In this spiritual community, we seek to return to an authentic and honest, even primitive, state of faith. We want you to ask the tough questions. We cannot guarantee answers but we can guarantee a safe space to wonder. You may very well leave today feeling your understanding of the cross has been turned upside down and may find you know less than when you walked in, but know you find yourself exploring the same thoughts as the earliest followers of Jesus.
Today’s feast traditionally commemorates the finding of the “true cross” by Saint Helen, mother of Constantine, in the 4th century. Did you notice the finding of the cross and its widespread usage in art just happened to coincide? The legend, well one of several, goes that Helen sought out to discover the cross that Jesus was crucified on; it was matter of personal piety and a matter of bringing an empire together under a unified religious banner. She traveled to Jerusalem where she talked to natives who had been handed down an oral tradition that the cross was buried underneath a pagan temple. As a further sign, there was a miraculous fragrant plant growing over the very spot the excavators dug. Eventually they found three crosses but no one knew which was Jesus’s. In a twist of fate there happened to be a diseased women near death who came forward and kissed one of the crosses and was instantly healed. The cross she kissed was raised and the shadow happened to fall upon a funeral procession of a young child who was instantly brought back to life. The pagan temple was tore down and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built to house the cross. The feast also commemorates a further rediscovery of the cross after being captured by Persians in 614C.E. and through a very bloody slaughter was recaptured by the Roman Empire in 627C.E.
Do these stories inspire your faith or require you to ask further questions? I personally find myself having a love-hate relationship with them. It is, after all, the theme of the day. I love the beauty of Helen digging up the earth and finding a wooden beam that just happened to survive four hundred years in a pile of dirt. I love the idea of how much celebration must have occurred. I love the idea of the dead coming to life. I love the excitement of the miraculous! However, I hate the idea that in a city that undoubtedly had hundreds, if not thousands, of people sick and dying the cross only saved two. I hate thinking about all the other parents who were grieving the lost of their dead children. I hate to think of the slaves who were worked in the heat of the day to dig up a wooden beam, one wonders if any of them were lost in the process. I hate thinking about the bloodshed that occurred both when the Persians sought the cross and when the Roman’s couldn’t let go of it. I wonder where Jesus’s message of “turn the other cheek” is found in the bloodbath to control a piece of wood, no matter how holy it is presumed to be. Yes, I truly have a love-hate relationship with this feast.
So today, in our community, we aren’t commemorating the discovery of the “true cross” or the bloody battles reclaiming it in the seventh century. However, we will contemplate the cross in our lives as modern people of faith in the 21st century. I believe we can celebrate the Feast of the Cross-if we get beyond the miraculous plants, healing kisses and supposedly justified wars. What if we go back to the original bare splinters of the cross and reflect on the simple act of Jesus so many years ago? I believe we find a message of love as never before demonstrated to people kind. We find a man who so loved the entirety of creation that he was willing to be crucified, even unnecessarily. A man who became the truest icon of self-sacrificial and life giving love as he spread his arms across a wooden beam. Jesus once told his followers: “There is no greater friend than one who would lay down their life for another.” Jesus meant what he said. In the act of his death he revealed a truly human willingness to go the distance required to let another know they are cherished and sacred. He went the distance to offer grace, mercy and redemption.
I believe you and I are called, on this feast, to consider finding ourselves attached to that holy cross. A cross where we lay down every weakness that so easily entangles us and we choose to operate in a love that powerfully echoes its existence for all generations. A love that cannot be ignored or silenced by voices of prejudice, hatred and bigotry but a love that triumphs! A gift of love that offers resurrection power to all it comes in contact with. On the cross, Jesus embraced all that is and was and ever would be and declared it to be precious and sacred to God. Do we do the same? Do we love with the same selfless embrace? It is easy to celebrate legends and lore but what if this feast is really about celebrating our own willingness to walk in Jesus’s footsteps? Are we called to love as he loved, to breathe as he breathed, to embrace as he embraced and to even die as he died, in a state of complete adoration for others? Does our love for others extend through the entirety of our lives or do we place limitations on it? Jesus had no limitations.
Yes, the cross is a symbol of death and we rightly find it difficult to understand. And yet somehow in the paradox of faith the cross becomes a symbol of life and love. It reminds us that all the earth is redeemed in the love of God and none are found outside of God’s tender embrace. Whether the fragments of the cross are with us still or not makes little difference, for the incredible love that was demonstrated on those splinters of wood lives with us forever more. So today when you come forward and meditate before the cross, remember you mediate not before splinters of wood but before the very love of God. When you kiss the cross, you kiss a tangible revelation of God’s love. Take it with you and give it away to the world, for in this you will truly become a child of the light. You will become the illumination in the dark and all creation will behold love lifted up and exalted before them.
This is the feast of the cross, the feast of love made known. Amen.