The cross is the central image of Christianity. We are sealed with a cross of holy oil in baptism and confirmation. Each year on Ash Wednesday our foreheads are inscribed with the cross of Christ. Sometimes at ordination the Bishop marks the hands of the priest with the sign of the cross. The presider at the Eucharist makes the sign of the cross over the congregation at the time of absolution and blessing. Our processions are led by a cross. And the cross is the centerpiece of nearly every place of Christian worship.
It is not surprising that many wear the cross as a sign of their faith, just as many of you are doing today. It stands both as a reminder of our mortality, our death, as well as symbolizing God’s triumph over our mortality, our new life in Christ. The cross is a visible indication of the tension in which we live, the tension between our horizontal relationships with one another and our vertical relationship with God. The cross is the intersection of our humanity, our life here on this earthy plane, and our life with God, both now and hereafter.
In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us that all our relationships with one another are to arise out of our life in Christ, a life which is not marked by hierarchy, but rather by shared mortality; a life which is not notable for authority, but rather, for self-sacrifice. For this Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
So the cross is not just an outward symbol of our Christian faith. It is not something that we simply look at, or wear or even that is signed over us. No, the cross is meant to be internalized, binding us to Christ. Speaking of himself as the vine and we as the branches, Jesus encourages his disciples with these words: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) This is why many people “make the sign of the cross,” that is, they inscribe the cross on their own bodies when blessing God or receiving a blessing. That is why people make three small crosses at the proclamation of the Gospel to internalize the cross in their minds, on their lips and in their hearts.
And for many, these manual signs are very important because they remind us that the cross is not something one puts on, but rather, something that is already deep within us. We do not so much take the cross upon ourselves; rather, by God’s grace, through the cross the fullness of life is called out of us. Living according to God’s will was not imposed upon Jesus—and neither is it imposed on us. The simple truth of the cross is that the divine life is in Jesus, and he is in us.
So this evening I want to suggest to you a “different” approach to the cross. We usually look upon the cross from the outside, but what would Jesus’ cross say if it could speak to us? So, relax and close your eyes. Open your heart and mind, so that when in our service we come to “venerate” the cross, we may not merely gaze upon it, but rather, truly “enter into” and “embrace” the reality of the cross.
“It wasn’t what I expected. I thought that I would have a quite different future. I expected to be something important: the lintel of a merchant’s mansion perhaps, or the great traverse beam for the porch of a public building. But as the carpenters began to shape me, I split. From that moment on I was good for nothing: too thick even to be used for firewood.
“Then the executioners found me, and my destiny was sealed. They hewed my broken pieces together, fashioning their instrument of torture. I was to be an outcast for an outcast; a condemned piece of wood for a condemned man.
“I sought to inflict the anger of my rejection on the one they chose for me. Slivers and splinters were what he deserved. If society despised and scorned him, then so would I. In bringing about his death, I was only doing what they had designed me to do.
“And yet, he held me like no other. In his grasp I could feel the winds that chilled me when I was a sapling, the brilliant sun that greened me each spring. Thought tired and weary, he pulsed life through the fingertips of his outstretched hands. My hostility was slowly transformed into indignation. How was it that they could not see that they had captured the Lord of life?
“From his first touch, I double-crossed reality, transforming the order of things forever. Even though I was designed to be a bed of suffocation reserved for slaves, I now breathed new life everywhere. Rome’s triumphant instrument of torture, I now became the implement through which death’s empire was conquered. No longer destined to be the ultimate sign of shame, I was now converted in and through him into the symbol of salvation.
“The soldiers may have lifted me on Jerusalem’s garbage heap so that all might mock him. But I stood proud so that he might draw the whole world to himself. I supported his arms so that he might unite the world in a final embrace of freedom. His arms closed in on no one—nothing. They simply stretched out to join heaven and earth in the final sacrificial offering of that union his Father—our Father—so deeply desired.
“I don’t think it’s what you expected either. After all, why should God become like you? Why should God choose to take on your humanity, even to share in your mortality? Yet here I stand, the complement to Bethlehem’s manger staves, to proclaim forever just how deeply God desires to be in you—how much God wants to be one with you.
“See in me how the Son roots himself in you, binds you to himself as a vine is connected to its branches. I only held him when he sacrificed himself—that moment when we most clearly saw God’s glory. But he took on your flesh, he died your death, so that youmight become his very body, so that you would be his continuing offering of praise and thanksgiving to God.
“Embrace him as I did! Lift him high with your lives. Show him, as I did, to everyone who passes by. YOU are now his cross. YOU are now the place where he shows God’s salvation. In your life, let the world see your wounds and vulnerabilities, because they show his presence best.
“Rage as I did against his suffering, wherever you still find it. Become with me his instrument of healing for others. All you need do is to be conformed to him, to the One who conformed himself to you. Then you’ll embrace others as he embraced me, as he now—even at this very moment—embraces you. You’ll know then how he loves you with a total abandonment, and how, through his spirit, he desires you to love others.
“I’ll say it again: it’s not what I expected. It is so much more. What a triumph we are in him! What joy, what happiness we can experience—even amidst his sorrow and pain. What life we can know, even in the midst of our dying. What glory we can share, if we simply let him live in us.”
We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
For by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world.
(from the Good Friday Liturgy)