During the Emperor Constantine’s construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, his mother, the Empress Helena reportedly rediscovered the True Cross. This cross was said to be the one upon which Jesus died. On September 14, 335, Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge complex in which Golgotha and the tomb are enshrined, and from then on, the Western Church took September 14th as a day to venerate the cross.
On Friday, January 17 of this year I found myself standing in this massive church. We climbed a stairwell and entered a section of the church where the walls were covered with beautiful mosaics and paintings. There were ornate chandeliers and beeswax candles placed in sand illuminating the room. And there were shining gold and silver icons surrounding a marble altar. On either side of the altar, there were two glass boxes covering the rock of Golgotha. There was a line forming under the eyes of a very watchful Greek Orthodox priest, and as we crept forward we could see the protocol. Each person stooped down to kneel under the altar and reach their hand down through a hole in order to touch the place where the cross of Christ was raised.
As I approached I said a prayer that I wouldn’t clunk my head on the marble altar while trying to maneuver and then awkwardly knelt with my backpack. I crossed myself and as I reached down through the elaborate silver star, I felt a little silly and wondered what to say. But as my hand touched the rock, all I felt was a wave of gratitude. And all I could say was “thank you.”
That day, kneeling in what might be the place Christ was crucified, all I had to say was “thank you.” Thank you, God, for the way in which you came into our world to forgive and free us all our sins. Thank you for calling us to a different way of living that can change the world around us. Thank you for the ways in which we know and experience your love.
And yet, that was not the first emotion I felt. Kneeling there, awkwardly squished under the altar, I wondered how we could possibly know if this was the place of the crucifixion. What was I hoping to experience by touching a rock? Yes, the first emotion I felt was a little bit of silliness. A little bit of foolishness. And Paul, writing in the year 58, knew about this as well. “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.” The message of the cross sounds foolish because it is not a message based on the wisdom of this world. It is not what the world normally hears or wants to hear. It is not rational.
Paul knew this even in his own time because both the Jews and the Gentiles – the Greeks and Romans – had a hard time swallowing his message. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would use miracles and adhere to the respected teachings. And there were a plethora of different thoughts about who this Messiah would be or how his role would play out, but dying as an insurrectionist on a shameful cross of the Roman oppressors was not part of the picture. As for the Greeks and Romans who prized logic, wisdom and power, why on earth would you want to follow a God who died broken on a cross? It was a disgrace and an affront to their sensibilities.
And I think that sometimes, even though we come to church and are Christians, we feel a little foolish about the cross. It’s acceptable as a piece of jewelry, sometimes even used as bling for celebrities and rappers. But to actually talk about what the cross means to us – that’s hard to do. We can find ourselves stumbling over words. Or, as I used to experience, literally facing a lump in our throats. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the fact that we believe in a God who came into the world to live among us, who died on the cross, and who was raised from the dead.
As Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jew turned Episcopalian, writes in Girl Meets God, “Admittedly it’s a little crazy. Grand, infinite God taking on the squalling form of a human baby boy. It’s what some of the old-timers call a scandal, the scandal of the Gospel. But it is also the whole point.”
The cross calls us to live in ways that are foolish to the world. It calls us to forgive and love our enemies as Christ did from his cross. It calls us to stand up for what we know is right even if it is not popular. It calls us to be vulnerable and ask for help when we need it rather than striving for rugged individualism. It calls us to help the poor and the stranger even when we are not always sure if the money or goods will be used responsibly. It calls us to believe in and work for justice and equity for all people even when it seems we make no progress. And, ultimately, the cross gives us joy in despair and hope in sorrow because we know that after the cross there is resurrection.
It’s utter foolishness. But I think there is one thing that helps us to understand it. And that’s love. As William Goldman writes in The Princess Bride, “…love is many things, none of them logical.” And I think it’s God’s love that makes God’s apparent foolish actions for creation into the very wisdom and power of God.
It’s this kind of scandalous love that knocks us off our feet. At least, that’s what I remember it doing to me when I first heard it. You mean Jesus, a person I don’t even know, would do that for me? You mean God loves me that much? You mean everything I’ve done wrong and will do wrong is forgiven? You mean that life bursts forth out of death? Yes!
This kind of love made me wonder about the God who would do all of this for the sake of the world. It was a love that drove me to seek God and long to learn more. It was this kind of love that led me to the church and later into ministry. Because I found that it was difficult to keep that love to myself – I wanted to share it with others so that they could experience the love, peace, hope and joy of Christ that I had experienced.
And sharing this message isn’t just something pastors or missionaries do. Each of us is called to share this incredible news. As Paul writes, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. … we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” God uses the silliness and foolishness of our proclamation to make God’s love known in the world. Crazy pants!
We are called to proclaim the crucified Christ in our words and deeds. People may not always respond positively or may be apathetic, but that does not change the fact that God has called us to share God’s foolish and abundant love with everyone. We are called to share this love, not to judge or condemn, but in order to save and heal.
When I look at the cross, I am filled with wonder and gratitude, love and hope. It also causes me to turn and look at where I have fallen short. It leads me to think about how I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. The cross is the place that turns me from myself and calls me into deeper relationship with Christ. It is both a place of suffering and death, not only for Christ, but for dying to myself. It is also a place of new life and beauty.
What does the cross mean to you? Have you thought about it much? Do you struggle with it? Do you have a hard time connecting this event from 2,000 years ago to your everyday life?
Knowledge and wisdom are wonderful things. But I think it’s only through looking at the cross with the eyes of faith, through prayer and meditating on what the cross means to us, that we delve deeper into the life to which this symbol is calling us.
So what does the cross mean to you? Since school is starting, I’d like to give you some homework this week. I know, collective groan! But stick with me. As you go about your week, spend some time praying and thinking about the cross. Write down what the cross means to you. It can be simple thoughts, or a poem, or a song. Or take a picture of something that symbolizes the cross. Or paint or sculpt. Submit your thoughts or creation via e-mail, on Facebook, or bring it back next week. The cross of Christ is at the center of everything we do – let’s start a conversation about what it means to us and how it shapes how we live. Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.