The Apostle Paul said “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”. (Gal. 6:8) It’s important on this day to remember the reality of the resurrected Christ, but also to remember the Jesus as he lived his life as one of us, as a child, a brother and a leader. The cross directs us to Jesus’ passion for the “kingdom of God.” The cross, like the waters of baptism, focuses on the cycle of death and resurrection, dying and rising. The cross calls out to us with a radical message: The cross of Jesus matters. It is the heart of Christianity, and it is fitting that it is the central symbol of Christianity. The refrain “Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again”; a memorial acclamation, comes after the consecration of the bread and wine for the Eucharist. Another similar refrain we use sometimes is “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.”
The cross was not a pleasant symbol in ancient Rome. The cross was a form of capital punishment reserved for those who defied imperial authority. Most criminals including murderers, thieves and those guilty of other crimes were executed in other ways or sentenced to slave labor. Crucifixion on the other hand was a publicly humiliating death. It was a death that put rightly sent this message: “Treasonous acts and those that undermine the authority and deity of Roman gods will be disgraced on a cross, crucified publically to warn others of this same shameful death, if they follow this path”.
Jesus challenged political and religious authorities with his message of “the kingdom of God” juxtaposed against the principles of the ruling religious and political kingdom. The heart of Jesus message was the coming of the kingdom of God. Eternal life, (heaven), is something that most Christians look forward to, but this is not the primary message of Jesus. The message is about the transformation of life “here on earth” As we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. Jesus used the word kingdom to describe what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of the rulers of the world.
Early Christians did not use the cross as a symbol to mark graves, churches and other sacred spaces, or as jewelry. The cross became a symbol of Christianity some time after Constantine officially declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD. The symbol of Jesus hanging on the cross did not become prevalent until late in the 6th century. However, making the sign of the cross was a custom of the early church. Tertullian made the sign of the cross on his forehead so often that he said his forehead became calloused. Today the cross has surpassed all other objects as the symbol that identifies our faith. The Christian journey is depicted as” the way of the cross”. Tertullian responded to claims that Christians worshipped the cross in the same way that we respond today. “We revere the cross, but we do not worship it. The cross points us to the resurrected Christ. That is who we worship.”
The cross of Jesus day was a gruesome thing. No-one would think about making it into a religious symbol. The church took what the world considered a horrifying and degrading piece of wood and turned it into a triumphant symbol of our faith. Yes it was a disgusting image, but it was redefined and the cross of shame has become representation of Easter, a triumph over death. The cross no longer stands for just a gruesome experience, (because it is that) but it also points to the resurrected life of Christ.
The cross is a symbol of the hope of salvation. Another word for salvation is transformation. Life after death is a destination, but the emphasis is on this life, not the next. The root meanings of salvation and being saved are freedom and liberation; to be freed and set free from a negative condition of life to a new and positive way of life. Liberation and transformation are important themes of the cross. Paul best sums up the message of the cross as a transformation from bondage to a life of freedom and liberation. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherein Christ has set you free, and be not entangles again in the yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)
The cross proclaims to us that Jesus Christ is alive and travels with us as we follow his lead on this transformative journey called “the way”. The risen Christ journeys with us, and is with us always, whether we know it or not. Sometimes there are moments when we do recognize this. One of the ways the risen Christ comes to us is in the blessing, breaking, and sharing of bread at the altar. The cross reminds us that Jesus is present with us now and not just a sacred memory of the past.
Remember that song by Burt Bacharach, “What’s it all about Alfie”?
What’s it all about Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
The cross points us to a loving God and asks us to love what God loves. The cross reminds us to be passionate about God and to participate in God’s passion for a different kind of world, here and now. And what about the future and our “Blessed Hope”, and all that is beyond our lives? We leave that in God’s hands.
I invite you this morning as you come to the altar to take your burdens and leave them at the altar. I keep thinking of that old Christian song that included these words: Take your burdens to the cross and leave them there. When you come to the altar for communion this morning, take your burdens and leave them there. The altar points us to the cross and the cross points us to Jesus. Bring your burdens to the altar and leave them there.
May we make the theme of this Holy Cross Day from the words of Saint Paul: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”. (Gal. 6:8)
by the Reverend Dr. David Madsen
Year A – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2014
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
El Cajon, CA