Holy Cross Day
A sermon preached at Holy Cross Monastery, 9/14/16.
When I was in college I worshiped at an Episcopal parish named The Chapel of the Cross. The original congregation, started in 1842 without a church building, had been named The Church of the Atonement. An actual church building would not come until 1848, and when Bishop Ives of North Carolina arrived to consecrate the space, because of its small size he called it a “chapel” and declared “We’ll name it for the deed, not the doctrine.” And so the congregation was renamed, and the new church became The Chapel of the Holy Cross, later shortened to its present form.
“We’ll name it for the deed, not the doctrine.” Today we celebrate Holy Cross Day, or “The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” A feast day named for the deed, not the doctrine. What this day actually commemorates is the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the year 335. Tradition has it that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over the sites of both the Crucifixion (Calvary or Golgotha) and the Burial of Jesus, his tomb. And it was at the site of Calvary that the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena unearthed the remains of three crosses. To discover which, if any of the three, was the True Cross of Jesus, she touched wood from each of them to a diseased woman. And, of course, when this woman was touched with the wood of the True Cross she was instantly healed.
And so the wood of this Cross was broken up, divided, and spread around the world as relics. And it’s said that if all of these various fragments of holy wood were gathered together to reconstitute the one True Cross we would find that not only was the Cross of Christ outrageously massive, but also made from the wood of about 15 different kinds of tree. Such are the miracles and the mysteries of our Lord...
“We’ll name it for the deed, not the doctrine.” We have built a lot of bad doctrine, bad theology, around the Cross. I imagine that most of you have struggled at some point in your journey of faith with just why this death on a cross occurred, and whether or not it had to happen this way. Of course, there are the straightforward, historical reasons—Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire and to the Temple hierarchy. They saw him as a revolutionary and a blasphemer, and so he was executed.
We could ask Why? and simply stop there. These are good enough and true answers. We could stop at the deed and forget the doctrine (and in some ways we might have been better for it!). But as Christians, we are not let off the hook so easily. We’re forced to ask the question, “Where is God in this Cross?”
One route that some of our theologians have taken is to think of Jesus’ Cross as a transaction, a payment to placate God’s wrath against us, so that we end up with God the Son dying to save us from God the Father—which sets up a pretty schizophrenic dualism within the life of God. And it places violence, bloodlust, and, as Dom Crossan so eloquently put it, “cosmic child abuse,” right at the heart of God. This is one route our theologians have taken.
Another route is found in one of my favorite books, the 1933 novel Peter Abelard written by Helen Waddell. If you haven’t read it, put it on your list. There’s a scene in the novel where Abelard and his friend Thibault find a rabbit dying in a hunting trap. As Abelard carefully removes the rabbit from the trap and holds it, it dies in his arms. Heartbroken, he asks Thibault if he thinks there’s even a God at all. How could God allow the suffering of this little innocent one?
“I know,” Thibault says, “Only, I think God is in it too. […] All this,” he stroked the limp body, “is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do. […] Thibault, do you mean Calvary?” Thibault shook his head. “That was only a piece of it—the piece that we saw—in time. Like that.” He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God we saw. And we think God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind, forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that forever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.”
“Then, Thibault,” he said slowly, “you think that all this,” he looked down at the quiet little body in his arms, “all the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?”
“God’s cross,” said Thibault. “And it goes on.”
This is another way of writing our doctrine of the Cross. Not as a transaction or a payment, but as a sacrament. As an outward sign of the way God is with-us-in-all-things, down to the depths and the dregs of life. The etymology of our English word atonement, our word for the doctrine, is literally at-one-ment. And our beloved 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich writes of this at-one-ment, following a vision she was given of the Cross:
Here [in the Cross] I saw a great one-ing between Christ and us, to mine understanding: for when He was in pain, we were in pain. And all creatures that might suffer pain, suffered with Him… The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person… In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are one person.
Christ then becomes that One Person in whom we are all held, and in him, all of us oned to God. Christ on the Cross shows us that God is at-one with the suffering of the whole universe—at-one with my dad dying on a roadside, at-one with the rabbit caught in a trap, at-one with our bodies as they wind down and wear out, at-one with us in everything. That is the doctrine to which the deed points.
Today, Holy Cross Day, is also the titular feast day of the Order of the Holy Cross. And every day as I walk through the main door of the monastery here, I see those words above the entrance, “Crux est Mundi Medicina”—“The Cross is the World’s Medicine.” How is the Cross medicine? There’s a line from the Sufi poet Rumi that says, “The wound is where the light enters.” Can we see the Cross as our collective wound through which the light can enter?
The Cross is not only a comfort given to those of us in pain—it’s also the reproach we need, the shock we need, to wake us up—it’s the sign of our own violence, domination, and misuse of power. Huston Smith puts it this way: “Every time we abuse the poor, every time we pollute our God-given planet, indeed, every time we act selfishly, God dies naked on the cross of our ego.” And so the Cross as our collective wound is also our medicine, our salvation, our opportunity to wake up. That, also, is the doctrine to which the deed points.
There is a Wisdom document that has been important in my own spiritual life, and I’m certain in the life of many of you. And I want to take our final word on the Cross from this text. The Master writes:
The cross is not the symbol of an event which has its place in the distant past, while only the memory of that event belongs to the present. Rather, it is the witness of a fact of the eternal order—the self-oblation of the incarnate Son to his eternal Father, as full of love and power today as […] on Mount Calvary. […] The whole love of the passion burns in every Eucharist, and we, [Christ’s] servants, are to be kindled with that love…
These are words from the Rule of James Otis Sargent Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. The Cross is our comfort, the Cross is our medicine, but finally the Cross is the truest symbol of that Love beating at the Heart of the Universe. A Cross present in every act of self-giving—a fact of the eternal order. This is what we celebrate today. This is the doctrine, the Love, to which the deed points.
And if the pieces of this True Cross were to be gathered together, it would be as immense as the universe.