Saturday, September 13, 2008
The Feast of the Holy Cross
It is some sense of fear and trembling that I take on the issue of the Feast of the Holy Cross today. This is a feast that has long been observed in Eastern Christianity—the Greek, Armenian, Russian Orthodox churches have observed this feast as an observance of the finding of the True Cross in the fourth century by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. We must remember that it was Constantine who was the first Christian Roman emperor and who made Rome finally a Christian empire. That he used Christianity to solidify his reign is without question. That his coat of arms displayed the Cross of Christ helped draw the entire of the Roman Empire into the realm of Christianity is also without question.
The cross was not the first symbol of Jesus’ ministry following his Crucifixion. The fish and the shepherd are the earliest symbols of Christianity and the cross became a symbol of Christianity by the late 2nd century. But since crucifixion as a punishment was practiced until the 4th century when Constantine abolished it, it is not surprising that the symbol of the Cross was not used as the symbol of believers until the fourth century. It was as Paul said, a scandal to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
The preeminent sign of our faith and the symbol that dominates this church is the cross. The cross is not unique to Christianity. It was used in many middle-eastern and eastern religions at a much earlier times. It was not a Jewish symbol but the ankh, a cross with a loop on the upper end had been sign of life and renewed life in Egypt for thousands of years before Jesus.
So why is it so important for us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross today? Why should we discard the regular Sunday readings for readings about the cross? Granted, we have looked to the cross as the symbol of our faith for at least 1600 years, and it does have such a powerful presence in our church. But I had to do some theological digging to address this issue.
The Apostle Paul in the Epistle today takes on the issue rather succinctly: “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.”
The message of the cross is not suffering. It isn’t a guilt trip that Jesus died for us and went through all of that pain. No, the sign of the cross is a reminder that our salvation is won. There is nothing we can do to achieve our salvation. There is no work that we can accomplish that could possibly make that salvation possible. The sign of the cross tells us that God has done what no mortal could do—emancipate all of creation from the bonds of meaninglessness.
Luther doesn’t preach much on the cross, but it figures in how he looked at life. Luther spoke of a theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory. The preacher who preaches a theology of the cross looks at all life through the lens of the Crucifixion. Now, Luther was a through-going medieval man. His theology was rooted in the middle ages—a time of seeing humanity as incapable and incorrigible. He thought humanity damned. I must admit I am not with Luther on this. But I understand where he was coming from and the theological structure he was using. I also understand how he understood the role of the passion of Jesus as being the event that freed humanity forever from the degradation of sin.
But it is what he called the ‘theology of glory’ that I most clearly agree with. “By "theology of glory," Luther meant what some of us call triumphalism. Religious triumphalism is the kind of belief that imagines itself the only true belief, the only "orthodoxy." I too worry when some preachers preach a theology that emphasizes only the positive in life. “ For instance, the great "positives" of resurrection, redemption, sanctification and the triumph of God's righteousness are ‘accentuated.’
Crucifixion, divine judgment, continuing sinfulness and the reality of evil are ‘eliminated’ (except, of course, as they apply to other people). Whether in old-fashioned doctrinal language or in the psychologized lingo of the church-going middle classes, the theology of glory offers a full package of Positive Spiritual Reinforcement-for those whose economic and other material sorts of reinforcement are firmly in place.
The theology of the cross, on the other hand, can't shut its eyes to all the things that are wrong with the world-and with ourselves, our human selves, our Christian selves. It doesn't accentuate the negative, as its critics sometimes claim. But it does want to acknowledge the presence and reality of that which negates and threatens life. Death and doubt and the demonic are still with us, and Luther never tired of talking about them and struggling with them. Any faith that depends on denying all that darkness isn't faith at all in the biblical sense of the term: It's gulliblity, repression and self-deception.”*
The sign of the Cross reminds us of the evil in our world. It keeps us from the “Don’t-worry, Be-happy” kind of theologies that allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have all the answers. It keeps us from falling into using ourselves as the lens through which we evaluate the world.
The cross also creates compassion. It allows us to enter into the sufferings of others without giving into the kind of pathos that cannot sustain or serve to heal the sufferings of others. It allows us embrace the sufferings of others that we may stand in solidarity with the suffering to bring about change in the world.
A couple of years ago when Mel Gibson came out with his The Passion of Christ, I chose not to go to see it. Since I became a Christian I have had no problem seeing the evil of the event of my Lord’s crucifixion in my mind. I did not need to watch a 3 hour movie to see it again. Besides, I didn’t want a movie version of to replace the one that I already had. The rawness of man’s inhumanity to man need not be portrayed in film for us to understand what it is. We need but be aware of such things and not allow ourselves to turn away as torture of prisioners that goes on in our own prisions, the degredation of hungery, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots to understand. We do not need cinamagraphic truisms to remind us of our falleness. We need but remember that we are human and we are saved despite of it.
The Cross of Christ is the sign of our faith not because Jesus died there. The sign of the Cross, like the Gospel, tells the whole world that death is not the end. The symbol of the Cross proclaims that we are an Easter nation and we are a resurrection people. We may have crosses in our churches, around our necks, on the walls of our homes, we may even sign our names with a cross. But most of all the Cross of Christ reminds us that we are a people who live between goodness and evil. We are a people who know what it means to be forgiven and therefore can forgive others. We are a people who can look upon the cross as the sign of hope par excellence and that we have the honor of being able to share that sign of hope with others. AMEN
*Douglas Hall, The Lutheran, May 2004