Holy Cross

Sermon for Holy Cross, Sunday, September 15 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 3:13-17

It’s an odd feast today, Holy Cross — the only feast of an inanimate object remaining in our calendar; there used to be others, but only this one is still observed. This is not the day we return to and consider the crucifixion of Christ, as such — that’s Good Friday. This is a day when we are meant to think about the Cross itself. Technically, we are commemorating the discovery, by the mother of the emperor Constantine, of a large piece of wood which the imperial family was pleased to declare was indeed the wood of the cross, somehow abstracted from the scene of the crucifixion and hidden away for a few centuries, but this was always a fairly spurious business, and is not something upon which preachers tend to dwell.

It does, though, point to the stubborn materiality of faith, the insistence that this is a story about the real physical world, about bodies and basic substantial things, about wood and blood and water and bread; the insistence that it is through matter, through stuff, that God comes to us.

And this is also a story about a tree. Christian environmental activists have pointed out that the Bible starts with a tree and ends with a tree — that mythical tree in the primal imagined garden of innocence, the tree which gives us, these strange human creatures, moral knowledge and complication and the ability to do deliberate wrong, and sends us out into our whole long painful narrative, and that equally mythical tree at the end of Revelation, planted at the centre of the redeemed city, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, the reconciliation of all that has gone before.

And at the hinge of the story stands this tree, a tree cut down, killed in a sense, and taken into human hands to be turned into an instrument of torture and murder; and yet a tree upon which the great healing begins. For God in human flesh allows himself to be nailed to this tree, to be reduced to pure, dumb, bleeding matter, flesh on wood, the complete humility and self-emptying of the divine into all the world. The tree that is the cross is nature twisted out of its proper place and proper use, yet brought into this absolute intimacy with God. And our poetry, our hymns, the prayers of the church, have always remembered the cross, which was an instrument of death, as a blessed thing, a kind of companion of Christ in his work. It is the cross which flowers, through Christ’s self-offering, into the tree of life.

I said earlier that this is the feast of an inanimate object, but it is interesting how Christian writing has tend to make the cross a sort of character in the story. We cannot resist, it seems, investing it with life and intelligence, making it a kind of sapient being which is able to be in relationship with Christ, in a way not wholly unlike our own. In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, not only does Christ come out of the tomb on Easter morning, the cross does as well, apparently walking and talking by itself, and informs God that it has carried out its assigned work, has gone down to the place of the dead to preach to those there.

And then there is the magnificent Old English poem called “The Dream of the Rood”, in which the cross narrates the story of the crucifixion from its perspective, beginning with its own cutting down, its unwilling complicity in murder, and its embrace of the one who is nailed upon it. In this poem, the cross does all it can to support and sustain Christ as he bleeds into its wood, the cross identifies itself with his pain; in some way enters into this act of extrajudicial torture and execution and strives to be present within it in love, an echo of Christ’s own suffering, loving, offering presence. The hurt world of nature, the world of matter damaged and distorted by human hands, embraces the God reduced to bleeding, killable flesh. “All creation wept,” says the cross. “I was all drenched with sorrow; nevertheless I bowed down to the hands of the men, humble.” And they fall together, the man and the tree. They fall into the final triumph of love.

There is so much here that is profound and important — not only the solidarity of God with the material world and what we can only call the solidarity of nature with God, but also a recognition of another and even stranger solidarity. The story told by the cross understands that the victim of violence, and the immediate instrument of that violence, are both held in their places by a larger system of evil, and by powerholders distant enough that they need not inflict the pain themselves. For this is often enough the truth about violence; systemic oppression and small elites compel the powerless into relations of competition and violence. In “The Dream of the Rood”, and in almost all the popular imaginings of the cross, that knot is untied, and the system of violence is undone, by the mutual recognition, the solidarity, of the cross and the man upon it.

Imagine the possible moments of this recognition, imagine the footsoldier, the oil executive, the prison guard, the abuser, actually seeing the broken body before them and realizing that this is where God is. Imagine us, untangling our own involvement in the systems which create poverty and homelessness and death on our streets, the systems which drive our climate emergency, and doing what we can to move from complicity to solidarity.

And it is in that embrace of the Cross and the Crucified that we may begin to enter into resurrection. For this is not only a story of death. It is that — it is the story of political torture and murder, it is the story of God in flesh going right down into the most lost, most final, place. But it is also the story of the Cross — and the Crucified — going down into death in order to lift up the lost. It is the harrowing of Hell, the emptying of the grave, the coming of love into the place of extinction, the filling of ultimate loss with ultimate love. It is finally a story of resurrection, a resurrection of all being, in which we can begin to participate now, if we choose.

We are sealed at baptism with the sign of the cross, and we wear that cross forever. It means that we take all of this on. We take on the pain of the world. We take on our own involvement in that pain, all the damage done, by ourselves as individuals, as a society, as a church. We take the weight of the victim upon our souls and bodies, and we acknowledge that it is here that we find the presence of God. We take on our illness and our cure. As in the strange little homeopathic story from Numbers which we heard in the first reading, it is by looking, really looking, at the very source of our sickness that we start to heal, to be transformed, to enter into God’s own life.

And in doing so, we take on resurrection. We take on the invitation to be a part of the remaking of the world, to be the agents of life, to go and speak love in the place of the dead. What those places are for each of us, it is part of our work to discover. It may mean taking part in the climate emergency protests here, and standing in solidarity with the First Nations people who are defending their land against these projects, imagining ways to live which don’t depend on the infinite consumption of fossil fuels. It may involve exposing and opposing the forces of hate and division, which would imprison children, lock our borders, destroy those who are different. And it may mean sitting with someone who is lost, abandoned, in pain, and simply being there, listening, offering yourself as a fellow being in presence, as the cross in the “Dream of the Rood” makes itself present to the suffering of the man nailed upon it.

For God so loved the world, and we are called to love this same world, and those beings in it with us, and our own flawed and fragile selves. For love is stronger than death, and many waters cannot drown it. For we are able, sometimes, to enter into that love, to know it at least a little bit in our lives, in work and prayer and relationship, and to carry it a little bit, in that work and prayer and relationship, into the ailing world. To hold up the cross not to intimidate, nor as a falsely triumphal proclamation, but as a sign that we know our illness, and that we will turn to the other in solidarity, and begin to make that illness into health.