Feast of Holy Cross
Num 21:4b-9; Ps 98:1-6
I Cor 1:18-24; John 3:13-17
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor 1: 18)
At the beginning of the fifth century, an aged bishop sat in a city in Africa and took his pen in his hand. He wrote because his world was falling apart: the Roman Empire, which had brought order and stability and wealth, was crumbling under the twin pressures of corruption from within and violent assault from without. For almost a hundred years, since the legalization of Christianity, the early church had assumed that it and Rome were one Kingdom of God. Now, Augustine worked in his final years to give his fellow-Christians a path forward as Rome fell, scattering words like bread-crumbs to guide a frightened people through a dark and forbidding forest. He wrote that there were in this world two cities, which existed side-by-side in every place and in every time: the earthly city and the city of God. The two cities were not territorial, but states of grace, “created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.” I would add that the road between one and the other takes the form of a cross.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Augustine this week; his words seem to be an apt summary of the challenges we are facing in our own time. Climate change, Covid-response, late-stage capitalism, the recurrence of authoritarianism in many parts of the world — each of these, at its root, leaves us caught between those two forms of love. Will we love our selves, our things, our way of life so much that we drive our ecosphere into the grave, or will we love God and the earth and one another more? Are we willing to continue to self-isolate, to wear masks, to practice physical distancing over the long haul, or will we claim our fleeting pleasure even if it risks our neighbor’s life? Will we elect and serve national and corporate leaders who believe that wealth and self-advancement are all, or will we find people who lift up others, who treat workers well, who invest in the common good, even at great cost? These struggles are not, ultimately, political: they are moral. They ask us to love our neighbor first.
Not an easy thing.
Today we honor the Feast of the Holy Cross — a strange and paradoxical day, in which we give thanks for the participation in our redemption of a brutal instrument of torture. The first time I read Fortunatus’ verses about the Cross, I was revolted. This was not a glorious tree: it was shameful, degrading, barbarous, cruel. It seemed dangerous to me to honor it — as if we were to honor Auschwitz, or the electric chair, because good people had been killed there. It was elevating the wrong piece of the equation. But the Cross does one thing better than anything else: it reveals. Not only God; also, ourselves.
In today’s strange reading from Numbers, the Hebrews’ grumbling becomes incarnated as stinging serpents. We know those serpents: fear, anger, boredom, hunger, gossip, privilege, desire. They lurk in our hearts, prick us and sting us and tempt us to forget our better selves. And when the serpents drive the people crazy, God commands Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a stick and anyone who looks on it will live. (Seriously?) Seriously. Because the things that divide one from another, the things which fracture our communities and even ourselves, derive their power from being hidden. That’s the power of temptation: things which are less good put on the clothing of things which are better, and as long as we do not unmask them, we can be led astray. It is only the act of staring at them straight-on — picking them up and turning them around and gazing at them from all sides until we can see, really see them — that sets us free.
So many things in our world right now wear false names. “Support for blue-collar workers” has become the name for a kind of coddling which keeps coal and other lethal industries afloat while refusing the true support of helping those workers transition to better, safer work. “Support for police” stands for allowing them to do whatever they want to whomever they want, without regard to the damage which is being done to their souls or the overall welfare of our society. “The free market” now means not free trade, but trade facilitated by a set of laws and subsidies which support the development of multinational mega companies at the expense of the small businessperson, the environment, and the worker. It is only in naming these things properly that we regain the power to effect real change.
Each of these things, and so much else in our world, revolves around contempt for the other; they protect a kind of spiritual immaturity — allowing people to remain small rather than helping them to grow. That’s the power of the Cross: sacrifice — real sacrifice — cancels immaturity. When we are asked to give up something that we like to help someone whom we love — the sleep we give up to feed an infant, the free time we sacrifice to help a friend through a crisis, the hours we devote to supporting the work of a volunteer agency, the cheese we no longer eat because we have a heart condition — something in us begins to writhe. That something is a lesser love, usually, a self-centered form of freedom. It’s the idea that I can do what I want when I want to. When my sister was two years old, we went to a hamburger place and she began to put more and more ketchup onto her plate. Finally, my father took the bottle and said, “That’s too much.” My sister replied, with impeccable logic, “I want too much.” Don’t we all!
Don’t we all…But the goodness of God is that most of us don’t get too much — at least, not over the long haul. For most of us, the challenges of life lived well bring us to a greater maturity, even if sometimes we are dragged there kicking and screaming. We do have to adult. We do have to pay our rent and learn our material and put in a good days’ work and care for other people and for animals and we are made aware that there is real suffering in the world, and that many people are carrying burdens under which we would stagger. Because each of us carries the cross which is necessary for our own healing, and would break underneath someone else’s load.
The cross reveals to us who and what we love, and in that revelation lies the door to freedom. That’s the paradox: like Christ, we must die in order to live. Our false selves, our petty immaturities, our endless desire to be in control — these must die so that we can sustain communities, relationships, this earth, and one another. And that work happens not only in the inward journey of faith; it must bear fruit in this world. It is not enough to talk and think and learn about the challenges of our times; we must also do what we can to bend our steps into a better way. Which means, we must be ready to look like fools.
The cross does not reveal only who we are; because Christ is on it, it shows us who and what we can be. It reveals the face of love. It invites us to trust in that love even when it cannot be seen, to embody that love even when it hurts, to walk as if that love were real, until it becomes real through our walking. Elizabeth O’Connor writes, “If we are to follow visions, we cannot be over concerned with what [others are] not doing. The very word “vision” implies grace—that which is not seen by ordinary eyes. The following of a vision, therefore, means a willingness to be out alone in a strange land, confident that God keeps us company there and with faith that one day another will join us and then another, and a vision can be clothed, which means for all to see.”
We are called to walk the path of the cross, because only by that dark way do we find the true light. We are called to die to our selves, because the selves we know are partial and incomplete, and only by laying them aside can we know the fullness of love. We are called to walk in trust, when so much around us — so much! — tells us trust is foolish. We are called to walk in community, because only in that web of mutual obligation can true freedom be found. I’ll end us today with the words of a Jewish prisoner held in the Cologne concentration camp:
“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
I believe in God,
even when God is silent.