For our honeymoon, Marc and I went to Europe, mostly on our saved air miles and the hospitality of my brother-in-law. We spent three days in Rome. On our first day, a family friend used her tour guide credentials to get us a tour of the Vatican. For those who believe Tom Harpur and the DaVinci Code that the Roman Catholic church hides it’s pagan influences, go the Vatican. There are Greek mythological heroes and pagan goddesses all over the place!
The next day was Sunday, and Marc wanted to worship at the Basillica of St. John Lateran. As we walked down the street, two nuns from India stopped us and asked us if we knew where they could find the church of Jerusalem. They said they were going to see the cross. Marc gave them the directions as best he could. They were very excited about seeing the cross. Finally, I interrupted. “Excuse me, but what cross are you talking about?”
One said, “The one on which our Saviour died.”
“Wait,” I said. “THE Cross? You mean it is here? The actual cross?!”
“YES!” they both exclaimed, and, in typical Indian hospitality, began to excitedly invite us to join them.
Marc could see St. John Lateran just up ahead and was anxious to get to Mass. “Thank you,” he said. “We might go after Mass…if we have time.”
I looked at Marc incredulously, “If we have time? If we have TIME? We spent all day yesterday looking at paintings and figures of the cross, and now we can see the real thing?! Did Jesus say he would die on the cross, ‘if I have time’? We are GOING!”
So, after mass, we retraced our steps to the street corner where we met the nuns. The closer we got to the church of Santa Croce di Gerusalemme, the smaller the signs seemed to get.
Then, we reached a church, no bigger than ours here. The mass continued on inside, and we found our way around the side aisles, seeking the small signs that read, “Holy Relics”. We were led to a small room, nicely lit by the sun. Inside a beautiful display case were a thorn, from the crown of thorns, the nails, the spear that pierced Jesus’s side and two large pieces of the cross beam of the cross, old and dark, smoothed by the years. It’s not that I don’t believe in the cross, it had just never occurred to me that it still existed. It was beautiful. As I looked at those relics, I saw the whole events of that Good Friday flash before me, and, there it was, the wood of the cross.
The strangest thing, to me, was comparing this scene to the day before. On Saturday, we spent our day surrounded by tens of thousands of people praying, worshipping, seeking meaning and God in a place of profound beauty and awe to the glory of God through stone, paint and canvas. On Sunday, I was standing in front of the beautiful piece of wood, where it all began, and we were joined by, count them, four other people. Tens of thousands at the Vatican. Six standing in front of the cross.
Standing in front of these pieces of the cross was for me like I imagine the experience of walking in the Holy Land, standing in the waters where Jesus and Peter walked, standing on Calvary or walking into the tomb.
So, where did these pieces of the crucifixion come from, and how did they end up in Rome? That is the story of the feast we are celebrating today, Holy Cross.
In the early fourth century, Emperor Constantine called for a great cathedral to be built in Jerusalem. He sent his mother, Helena, a Christian and a profound influence on her son, to oversee the construction. They picked the site of Calvary for the Cathedral. While digging into the hill, they came across the remnants of a cross, a crown of thorns and other tools of crucifixion. The authorities quickly agreed these were, indeed, the relics of the crucifixion of Jesus. A portion of the cross was kept in Jerusalem, a smaller portion was returned to Rome and is now held at the Santa Croce de Gerusalemme.
Until Constantine took Christians under his protection, we suffered merciless persecution. Imagine what the discovery of the cross would have meant to those who had suffered for two centuries. For them, the cross was a symbol of hope and of God’s faithfulness through the worst of times.
We all come to the cross from different places and, when each of us sees or wears a cross, it means something a little different. For those of you who wear a cross, it was very likely a gift, perhaps for confirmation. Maybe it was purchased somewhere special, to remind you of a particular journey you took.
Some of us would like to move right past the cross. We call ourselves, “a resurrection people” and yet it is the cross, not an empty tomb, that we look up to every Sunday.
So much happened on this cross. Since the early 20th century, the church has focussed on Jesus’ death as the wages of our individual sins. We each look at Christ on the cross, and list the sins that we have committed that put him there, and beg his forgiveness. It is only in the past hundred years that we have had such an individual relationship with the cross, “Jesus died for MY sins.” What happened on the cross is so much bigger and greater than anything anyone of us could do, and it is for so much more.
God loves us so much, that He chose to become human. He shared the truth with us, about God, our world and ourselves. Through his perfect example, we saw ourselves for who we really are: greedy, selfish, short-sighted, intent on ravaging our surroundings and each other and violent. If there isn’t a war we are fighting, we will find one, or create one for ourselves.
Jesus held up a mirror for us, and we couldn’t face it. So, rather than face the truth, we, put him on a cross. He could have chosen to fight, to destroy, like any of us would have done with the resources he had, not only Divine power, but people. too. But he didn’t. Because He loves us, and refused to destroy.
Instead, he went to the cross, willingly.
But even the worst of all of humankind, war and death could not destroy him.
The new covenant, the promise of the resurrection, is the victory of creation and love over death and fear. The forgiveness is for a whole world.
So much happened on that cross, way more than any sin any one person could commit. The resurrection was not an act of shock and awe. It was an act of creation, creating life out of death, love out of fear. It was an act of creation, not war, that showed the authorities that their power meant nothing over the followers who chose the Way of Christ. Those who lived their whole lives as, “the less”, were now the greatest. That is the new kingdom.
When St. Helena and her builders found the cross, they knew that the new kingdom was still at hand. How ironic that the Roman powers, who 400 years before had been among the powers that put Christ on the cross, are now preserving the cross as a renewed symbol of hope.
1600 years later, in a city of tens of thousands pilgrims, six people stood in front of the relics of that very cross. Six. Now, 1600 years later, how do we make the hope and victory of the cross real?
We choose faith over fear. This morning I read an article by theologian Brian McLaren about the anti-Muslim film that has caused fury this week. He challenges the church to look honestly at the Islamaphobia that exists in our churches. To simply sit and know that the words expressed by some Christians are not our views is not enough. McLaren challenges us to bear the cross by speaking up in the face of hatred. He writes, “Yes, “they” – the tiny minority of Muslims who turn piety into violence – have big problems of their own. But the way of Christ requires all who claim to be Christians to examine our own eyes for planks before trying to perform first aid on the eyes of others. We must admit that we have our own tiny minority whose message and methods we have not firmly, unitedly and publicly repudiated and rejected. To choose the way of Christ is not appeasement. It is not being a ‘sympathizer.’ The way of Christ is a gentle strength that transcends the vicious cycles of offense-outrage-revenge.”
Jesus’ last words, according to the Gospel of John, “It is finished.” Violence, fear, death, hatred, greed, for those who follow Christ, died on the cross. That’s how we are called to live. That’s how this cross means something today, when we live as if the work of the cross is complete, living as those who have been forgiven, those who have the peace of Christ. The life of the cross calls us to look at the sin and evil in our nature and in our world and declare, “It is finished, in the name of the Christ.” We may not walk with a cross before us, but our lives raise it up when we choose the way of Christ.