In nomine Jesu!
If, on any of your devices, you've watched any of the circus in Kentucky this last week, you couldn't help but notice a large proliferation of crosses being waved by some in the crowd; and, if you were crazy enough to turn up the volume, you no doubt heard some in the background sing this refrain:
Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war /
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Today, Holy Cross Day marks the beginning of a new year for us and, as we begin this year, I want to suggest that we use Christ's cross in a very specific way. Not the way it's being used in Kentucky, to lead an angry, mostly political, movement; and not the way described in what once was for some of us, a very popular and stirring song. That "use" of Christ's cross is not what today at Saint Peter's is all about, although, I must confess, that use of Christ's cross is very much what the origin of Holy Cross Day was all about. One of the typical on-line explanations of the origins of the day puts it this way:
During the reign of Constantine (272-337 CE),
first Roman Emperor to profess the Christian faith, his mother Helena went to Israel and there undertook to find the places especially significant to Christians. (She was helped in this by the fact that in their destructions around 135, the Romans had built pagan shrines over many of these sites.) Having located, close together, what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and of the Burial (at locations that modern archaeologists think may be correct), she then had built over them the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was dedicated on 14 September 335. It has become a day for recognizing the Cross (in a festal atmosphere that would be inappropriate on Good Friday) as a symbol of triumph.
To be sure, the cross is a symbol of triumph -- God's triumph over evil and death. Yet all too often over the millennia, the image of the cross as sign of triumph has been "bannerized" or, more precisely, weaponized -- Kentucky is but the latest example -- and has been used by one group of people as a sign that God is on "our" side against another. In the crusades and among some today, Christians versus Muslims; In the 50's, capitalism versus communism; During World War II, the Allies versus the Nazis; 125
years ago, the forces of temperance over the forces of... you get the point.
I am not suggesting anything near that kind of use today; at the very least here at Saint Peter's that temperance thing is pretty much a non-starter.
But I am suggesting we do use Christ's cross as more than just a symbol, logo, or to lead liturgical processions. I'm suggesting that we use Christ's cross this year in way drawn directly from the Gospel; a way Jesus describes which "draws all people" to God; A way which our first reading describes which invites those in need -- "bitten by a serpent," -- in Numbers-language -- only need to "look at it and live." I'm suggesting that, very intentionally this year, we see everything that confronts us -- personal, communal (i.e. congregational), and societal -- through the lens of Christ's cross. Consider that view.
We cannot look at anything or anyone through the lens of Christ's cross without first seeing God wrestling with the same issues we are. We cannot look at anything through Christ's cross without seeing God at work. Saint Paul writes,
"In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Looking through Christ's cross, it is impossible to deny, denigrate, divide or dismiss another human being; for through Christ's cross, God has reconciled us -- God and us and them, us to them and them to us -- without condition.
We cannot look at anything or anyone through the lens Christ's cross without seeing the effect of alienation or, to use religious language, sin. As one of my favorite theologians wrote, "God identifies with our sin;" or, as Saint Paul wrote, "God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin;" or as Martin Luther put it, "God is here dealing with God." Through Christ's cross, God participates with the act of giving up and being given up. Through Christ's cross, God overcomes alienation by enduring it, by taking it into God's very own being. This is the essence of forgiveness: God does not retaliate. God does nothing to even the score. God absorbs all that is done. Looking at ourselves, each other and other through the cross changes the way we think, speak and act toward one another; it helps us to neither give or take or find offense.
We cannot look at anything and anyone through the lens of Christ's cross without calling everything into question. Religion, politics, race relations, income disparity, men, women -- all these then and now are responsible for the crucifixion. No system, no culture, no one is flawless. At the cross, the world's way of death-dealing in order to cling to the illusion of life; the world's way of making victims in order to cling to the illusion of power -- is revealed. All of the things we view as ultimate are seen for what they are, penultimate, not the last word. In the cross, God makes a final and irrevocable decision about our world. God will not abandon the world. God will not give up on the world. To see all through Christ's cross compels us not to abandon or give up on the world either, but to seek God's way of engagement that gives us direction to transform it.
When we look at everything through the lens of Christ's cross, we can't help but see beyond the cross to resurrection; to all things and all peoples being made new; to a new heaven and a new earth; to human beings of every sort, all creatures and all creation brimming with new life; to a holy city, sent from God; to a living tree growing in the midst of the garden with fruits for
all and leaves that heal the nations and to a great a glorious feast of those who gather from east and west and north and south and both sides of the great divide we call death.
As we begin a new year at Saint Peter's with people, new and old; programs, new and old; challenges, new and old, I urge you to look at everything and everyone through the lens of Christ's cross for through that lens we see, not only the "changes and chances of life" but "the joy that is set before us" and, seeing these things, can move forward together fearlessly, with faith, energy and with hope, creatively shaping life in the city, empowered by the one who, crucified and risen one, leads us all the way.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
Saint John 3:13-17