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Readings: Holy Cross Day

05 September 2014


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. Amen.

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 Jesus.

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 other;
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 glory,
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 himself.

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.



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