Friday, 26 September 2008

Holy Cross Day

Homily at the Eucharist
14th September 2008

Preached by Martin Jackson, Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Numbers 21.4-9; 1 Corinthians 1.18-24; John 3.13-17

What does the Cross say to us? In his meditation on the Crucifixion from his extended poem “Counterpoint” this is what the priest and poet R. S. Thomas has to say:

They set up their decoy
in the Hebrew sunlight. What
for? Did they expect
death to come sooner
to disprove his claim
to be God’s son? Who
can shoot down God?
Darkness arrived at
midday, the shadow
of whose wing? The blood
ticked from the cross, but it was not
their time it kept. It was no
time at all, but the accompaniment
to a face staring,
as over twenty centuries
it has stared,
from unfathomable
darkness into unfathomable light.

Poetry is not to be explained. And the poetry of R. S. Thomas in particular does not set out to create a warm glow, but confronts the reader with what is often uncomfortable; rarely shining a light, but rather inviting exploration of the darkness we would more readily avoid. Here it’s the Cross - and what we may make of it. Do we simply take it for granted? - expect to see it in our churches? - perhaps put one on a chain around our neck without really considering what we do? It’s the central symbol of our Christian faith, but for Thomas we often try to make it too easy:

Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it…

(he writes elsewhere). That’s how we’d prefer it: decorated according to our design, rather than the bare wood upon which a man is killed. He goes on:

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven.

All this should be a warning to us. The proper name of today’s Feast is “The Exaltation of the Cross.” Lift it up and show it around! - we even sang about that in our first hymn this morning, “Lift high the cross!” But the cross is not merely to be waved around. It’s not just for show. It takes us back again and again to the cruelties which people have inflicted upon each other, and to the pain which so many suffer without relief. And it takes us back to God’s way of entering into our pain. It’s an “unfathomable darkness,” says Thomas, but across 20 centuries the face of the one who hung there looks still towards us… and into “unfathomable light.”

As a Feast, Holy Cross Day has its origins in the supposed discovery of the remains of Jesus’ Cross by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, in the early fourth century. It was on 14th September in the year 335 that the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated in Jerusalem over the supposed site of Jesus’ tomb. In the same church you can still visit a chapel where Jesus was said to have been crucified. But John Pridmore issues a warning about it:

The site of the cross - through the main doors, turn right, and up the stairs - is in the custody of the Orthodox…

The Greeks guard the site jealousy. A few years ago on this feast day, someone left the door open to the adjacent Roman Catholic chapel, and the Orthodox took this as an insult. A fist-fight broke out, which had to be broken up by the police. "See how these Christians love one another."

The problem is that we want our own views and opinions to prevail… I’m grateful to John Greener who has lent me a book about the Ruthwell Cross, which he visited recently in Dumfriesshire. It’s a major piece of Northumbrian artistry, a cross 21 foot in height on its pedestal which proclaims the Gospel in words and sculpture, erected probably about the year 680. And it stood as a witness to the Gospel nearly a thousand years. But in 1640 the Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided that all images and crosses must be pulled down and destroyed because of their idolatrous character. The Ruthwell Cross survived only because of the wise action of the local minister, who took the cross down but then placed it in a trench in the floor of his church so that it was preserved until a time when it could safely be set up once more.

So much could have been lost: fine scenes of the Annunciation, the life and miracles of Jesus, his Crucifixion, and Christ in glory as well as the inscription from the ancient poem, “The Dream of the Rood.” This is part of that poem, in which the Rood, the Cross itself, is heard to speak:

It was long years ago - I can recall it yet -
that I was felled in a place in the forest,
hauled away from my home. Hostile hands seized me,
bade me lift miscreants up for men to see their shame.
They heaved me on their shoulders, set me up upon a hill,
crowded round to fix me fast. Then far off I saw the Lord of men
hastening, hero-like to mount upon me high.
How then could I dare to disobey my Lord,
to bend or break even though I beheld
all the earth quaking…
I shook as he, the Son of Man, enfolded me, yet still I feared to
bow to earth,
fall to the ground; yet still I must stand firm.
I was set up, the Cross, I lifted up a mighty King,
the heaven’s Lord…

The narrowly-avoided destruction of the Ruthwell Cross was part of a wider campaign throughout England and Scotland in the period after the Reformation. You can visit the ruins of monasteries and other church buildings which were destroyed. In cathedrals and ancient churches you can see the statues which were decapitated or had their faces rubbed out. A huge amount of stained glass must have been lost. Now we would call it desecration. But to the so-called Reformers it made perfect sense. These were graven images, which could lead people to idolatry and which spoke of the yoke they perceived to have been imposed by the Church of Rome. What they failed to see was their own short-sightedness, the narrowness of vision with which they proceeded to burden their own people, and their own forms of idolatry of which they remained blissfully unaware. If only they could have seen - as again John Pridmore writes:

Devotion to the cross as the instrument of our salvation is common to every tradition of Christian piety. The Orthodox and the Roman Catholics have their reliquaries, and the Protestants their hymns. The same instinct to contemplate the wood where our Saviour hung inspires both pilgrimages to the Chapel of the Holy Relics in the Santa Croce church in Rome, and rousing renderings of "When I survey the wondrous cross" at the Keswick Convention.

The danger is always that we seek to make God in our own image, that we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we cannot hear him speak. That’s what St. Paul is saying in today’s New Testament reading:

For the message about the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’…
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling-block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The Empress Helena brought fragments of what was said to be the True Cross back to Rome, and you can see them now in the Church built over the site of her house, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. I saw the relics last year. They don’t benefit from their setting in a Chapel built of grey polished marble in the time of Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. I was left wondering, should I be moved? - or isn’t this all really rather daft? But there’s that continuing reminder from St. Paul that the message of the Cross is foolish - and at the same time this apparent foolishness is God’s way… He loves us so much that he lets his Son take the way of the Cross. He comes not to condemn, not to judge out of hand, but to love - and to love us despite our failings and failures, even through our wilfulness and the most murderous of our instincts. It’s our human failings which take Christ to the Cross. And it’s his Cross which bids us be silent - so that we can hear him speak.

No comments: