Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 September 2019
Trinity 13 (Holy Cross)
We celebrate the gift of the Eucharist not only on Maundy Thursday but also at Corpus Christi. Yesterday, Holy Cross Day, we celebrated, at even greater distance from Good Friday, our Lord’s triumph on the Cross, his dying for us and his Easter rising, that we might share eternal life.
Holy Cross Day originally commemorated the rescue and restoration to Jerusalem of a relic of the True Cross by the Emperor Heraclius in 629. It also marks the original dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where those relics of the True Cross were kept. But, as I’ve said, it has become for us an extension of Good Friday, celebrating the Cross, the instrument of our salvation and a great and powerful sign of God’s love for us, a love stronger than death, which inheres in our faith and daily Christian life, in prayers and blessings, in pictures and crucifixes, in making the sign of the cross, in the deep structure of our thinking about the priorities of life in Christ and in the Kingdom.
And today, if 15 September were not a Sunday this year, many Western Christians would be commemorating Our Lady of Sorrows, a feast found also in some Anglican calendars under the title Our Lady at the Cross. This feast originally commemorated the Seven Sorrows of Mary, linked to the events of Good Friday when Our Lady stood at the foot of the Cross, hence its close association with Holy Cross Day. This aspect of Marian spirituality, the sorrow prophesied by Simeon at Candlemas (‘and a sword will pierce your own soul also’), is noticeably more popular in Latin and third-world countries where sorrowing mothers are more culturally prominent. It recalls that Mary had a unique share in our redemption, offering her Son’s life to the Lord, trusting his good purpose, and ultimately rejoicing in the new life of Easter. We celebrated her share in that new life in the Feast of her Assumption, last month.
So that’s Holy Cross day and Mary at the Cross. But what does the cross mean to us? What does it mean that our faces and fates have been sealed with the cross in baptism and confirmation, that our foreheads are yearly marked with the cross in ashes, that priests’ hands are marked with the cross in ordination, that the sign of the cross is made over us in blessing and absolution and that we respond by making it over ourselves? What does it mean that the centrepiece of nearly every place of Christian worship is a cross?
Holy Cross Day reminds us that the Cross is not just a Lent and Passiontide symbol, not just about sin and suffering, penitence, pitifulness and death. As an instrument of torture and death it is still just that, an instrument, a conjunction of two pieces of wood engineered in a particular way, put to a purpose which, unintended by its makers, led to our redemption. But because of Calvary this simple physical object becomes for us the Cross, with a capital C, and is also the sign of mortality, the intersection – and tension – of horizontal relationship with one another and vertical relationship with God; the intersection of life here and life with God.
On Holy Cross Day we pray
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.
That carefully balanced prayer does not allow us any masochistic eagerness to suffer pain. Like all collects it is a prayer of the community, which seeks God’s help to inform our relationships in the Body of Christ.
Our bearing toward one another, says Paul to the Philippians, is to arise out of our life in Christ Jesus, a life which is not characterized by hierarchy or authority, but rather by mortality. The Cross is Jesus’ supreme enacted parable. For,
though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.’ Phil. 2.6-8.
The greatness of God, and the holiness of Jesus, says Paul, is manifest in mortality, and thus in divinised humanity.
Our faith shows that the cross is not an accessory to life, but the embrace of life itself through this unexpected object. Christians do not wear the cross as an emblem of exclusivity or a talisman of spirituality; Christians wear it because we bear the cross within, in the daily embrace of all that it means to be human. To be a Christian is not masochistically to seek pain, to take the cross upon ourselves, but rather to accept it in whatever form it comes to us and in that acceptance to have the fullness of life coaxed out of our truest selves. Life was not imposed upon Jesus, it was embraced by him; life was not beaten into him, nor is life beaten into us; it comes from our created selves in the image of our creator; it ‘comes into being’ in us. John 1:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The life is in him, and he is in us, in our sacramental life together. As we adore the Blessed Sacrament and receive the Lord’s blessing, once again receiving this saving sign, we are being recalled to our Christian DNA.