Numbers 21.4-9; Philippians 2.6-11; John 3.13-17
Almighty God, who in the passion of your blessed Son made an
instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and
peace: grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may
gladly suffer for his sake; who is alive and reigns with you, in
the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
THIS Sunday, Holy Cross Day, commemorates the dedication, in
335, of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was
built over the supposed site of the crucifixion and the tomb of
It can feel slightly odd, in September, to commemorate the cross
on its own, shorn from Holy Week's full narrative of salvation
history. Then, our focus is rightly on the solemnity of the cross
and the events of those dreadful hours, but now we have a different
opportunity to reflect on the cross and its meaning.
Under these circumstances, we must remember that the cross is
referred to is not a generic cross, but as the cross of Jesus.
Forget that, and we are in danger of glorifying cruel death;
remember it, and we are commemorating the heart of the Christian
gospel, in which, as the collect prays, God has made an instrument
of painful death to be the means of life and peace.
So, following the imagery of the reading from Numbers and
Jesus's reinterpretation of it in the Gospel passage, the cross of
Jesus is something to which we turn for life.
As Christians, we are shaped by and imbued with the cross. At
baptism, we are signed with the cross; at ordination, many priests
have their hands marked with cross by the bishop; we make the sign
of the cross over ourselves in prayer, and are absolved from our
sins with the sign of the cross.
Once, when I was preaching on Good Friday in a small church in a
small town in the United States, I asked the children how many
crosses they could see in the church. We were all amazed when they
reported more than 100 (it helped that every pew end and prayer
book had a cross on it).
In early Christian art, Jesus reigns from the cross; only since
the medieval period has he been shown suffering on it. Hymnody and
poetry apostrophised the cross, addressing it in direct speech, or
(as in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood) letting
it speak to us. Thus we sing the words of Fortunatus, a
sixth-century Spanish Christian:
Faithful cross, above all
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the king of heavenly glory
Gently on thine arms extend.
In the light of this, it is perhaps surprising that the only
direct reference to the cross in the readings on Holy Cross Day is
Paul's quotation, probably from an early hymn, referring to Jesus's
humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death, even
death on a cross. The cross was for Jesus not something that he
sought out, but something that happened to him as he humbled
Sam Portaro (in Brightest and Best, Cowley, 1998)
describes a conductor who rebuked over-enthusiastic percussionists:
"One does not beat the music into the drum; one coaxes the music
out of the drum." Portaro draws a parallel: "The cross is like the
music of the timpani: it is not something one puts on, but rather
something that is coaxed out of us. The wearing of the cross is not
an accessory to life, but rather is the embrace of life itself. .
"Christians bear the cross within, in the daily embrace of all
that it means to be human. To be a Christian is not to take the
cross upon oneself, but rather to have the fullness of life coaxed
out of oneself."
The collect prays that we may glory in the cross of Christ, so
that we may gladly suffer for his sake. That is a tough petition.
Current news tells of the ghastly suffering of thousands of
Christians driven from their homes in northern Iraq, and earlier in
the summer, the young mother, Meriam Ibrahim, who was imprisoned in
Sudan for holding to her Christian faith, now thankfully released
(News, 1 August).
Their fortitude is remarkable, as commitment rather than hatred
is coaxed out of them through their suffering. On this Holy Cross
Day, perhaps our most profound response is to pray for them, and
for grace to follow their, and Jesus's, examples.