14 September 2008
17th Sunday after Trinity – Holy Cross
10.30 Communion – Woodchurch
Most of you will have already met my nearly two-year old son, Henry, and if you have not yet done so he will doubtless be running around at the end of the service. For those of you who have met Henry I can probably say with some confidence that the word ‘Saintly’ is not one that immediately springs to mind when you think of him – a bundle of noisy energy, yes, but a saint, no. However he has recently adopted a form of piety that I wanted to share with you – whenever he sees a cross he has taken to saying “Amen”. In fact he generally points at the cross and goes “Amen, amen, amen, amen”. It doesn’t matter whether the cross is in a church on top of a war memorial or wherever we always get the same. It is generally quite sweet and amusing although I have to admit that it can get a little embarrassing when he sees a women in the street wearing a cross around her neck and he points to her and starts saying “Amen”. I blame the parents.
I thought that I would mention Henry’s new-found piety towards the cross as today, September 14th, is Holy Cross Day. It is also known as the Exaltation or Triumph of the Holy Cross and its old-English name is Roodmass. This is a festival day in the church’s calendar and you may have noticed that we are wearing red stoles rather than the green of ordinary time to mark this as being a special occasion. Today we are called to think particularly about the cross on which Christ was crucified and, of course, what the cross means to each of us.
Before we think about the cross in theological terms I just wanted to share a little bit of church history with you. The reason that the church celebrates September 14th as Holy Cross day is because of St Helena, the patron saint of Colchester. St Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who was the first emperor to become Christian and that conversion ultimately changed Christianity from being an underground and persecuted movement into being the official religion of the empire. There is still plenty of debate about whether or not that change was a good thing for Christianity but I am not going there today. Anyway in the year 326, when she was about 80 years old, St Helena went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, whilst there, she discovered the remains of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The legend is that after the events of the first Easter and as the seeds of the early church began to take root the Jewish elders in Jerusalem had hidden the cross in a ditch and buried it under rubble in order to prevent it becoming an object of veneration for this new and dangerously heretical sect. It is said that the knowledge of its whereabouts were handed down amongst certain Jewish families and that by divine intervention a descendent of one of those families told St Helena where to look. In this day and age it is very easy to adopt a certain scepticism towards such stories which is helped by the fact that in the middle ages there were enough remnants of the true cross in circulation to build a battle ship – however it is worth remembering that the cross was a substantial and real physical object that existed within Jerusalem and that less than 300 years has passed between it being hidden and St Helena finding it. Although that may sound a long time I have no doubt that there are pieces of wood in this church which are more than 300 years old and our climate is much less kind to wood.
Anyway, following the discovery St Helena built the church of the Holy Sepulchre over the site and on the 14th September 335 the cross of Christ was brought into that church to be venerated which is why today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and has been celebrated as such for the last 1, 673 years.
That’s enough history for the moment – let’s now think about the meaning of the cross which, of course, does not depend on whether or not the real cross was ever discovered.
Although the sign of the fish was and is sometimes used as a symbol of Christianity there can be little doubt that the sign of the cross is a ubiquitous symbol of the faith and, with Henry going “Amen” all over the place, one quickly realises how widespread that symbol is throughout society.
If one thinks about it for a moment it is actually quite odd that the cross should have become the symbol of the faith – after all the cross was a terrible instrument of torture and death that the Romans used to execute undesirables. Had the incarnation of Christ taken place not in first century Roman occupied Judea but in twentieth century Nazi occupied Poland then we as the early church may be using the symbol of the gallows, or the bullet or the gas chamber instead of a cross.
I accept that it is not an exact parallel and I apologise if anyone finds that offensive or shocking but the fact is that the cross itself is a shocking symbol. In Galatians 5:11 St Paul refers to the “offence” of the cross and in Hebrews 12:2 the writer talks about the “shame” of the cross. This morning’s epistle reading from Philippians talks about Jesus being obedient to death – even death upon a cross. The fact is that to die on a cross was not to die the death of a martyr or a hero but it was to die the death of a criminal, the lowest and meanest form of death, and that was both offensive and shocking to decent society.
So why is this symbol, of the means of Jesus’ execution, to be exalted?
Of course it is because the crucifixion was not the end – the death and darkness of the first Good Friday was transformed by the resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is God’s purpose of salvation demonstrated in the resurrection of Christ that changes the cross from a symbol of death into a symbol of everlasting life. As it says in : 1 Corinthians 1:18
“…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
In other words to those who cannot accept the possibility of the risen Christ the cross can only ever be a place of a foolish early death – however if one believes that Christ rose on Easter morning then the message of the cross becomes the power of God because we know that if we believe in the risen Christ, if we look on him who was sent and lifted up for us, then we too can join ourselves to Christ’s resurrection and be washed clean of everything that separates us from God.
Having referred to the “offence” of the cross in chapter 5 of his letter to the Galatians, that I mentioned a moment ago, in the next chapter of that same letter St Paul puts the cross in the correct place of all Christians:
“14May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Gal 6:14
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps Henry has something to teach us after all – whenever we look at the cross we should recall that it is a symbol of the power of God and that Christ died the death of a criminal in order to bring us eternal life and, of course, we should all say “Amen” to that.