In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. Paul says: “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
The cross is one of those words, one of those religious concepts, that has a tendency to get stripped of its significance through much repetition. But it is so central to our faith – standing, indeed, at the VERY CENTER of our faith – that it is helpful for us, from time to time, to step back and reconsider, remind ourselves, why we Christians are supposed to be so excited about it. And, by the way, one of the great blessings of being the custodians of a relic of the true cross, is that it reminds us that the cross is not an abstraction or a concept: it is the artifact, the physical object, on which Jesus was executed. And there sits a piece of it.
“Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
What a very strange statement. To men and women of the first century, when Paul wrote these words, the cross was a symbol of imperial power. It signified the absolute power of Rome over the nations and peoples that were subject to her. You were only eligible for crucifixion if you were one of the peoples that Rome had conquered. If you were a Roman citizen, you could not legally be crucified – which is why Paul was beheaded, whereas Peter was crucified. Paul was a Roman citizen, from the city of Tarsus, whereas Peter was from Galilee in the Roman Province of Syria-Palestine, whose people did not have the rights of citizens. If you were among the peoples conquered by Rome and you offended against her power and authority, Rome could have you stripped, flogged, and nailed to a tree until you were dead. That’s what the cross meant.
So when Paul says that he “glories” in the cross of Jesus, he’s saying something that would have been radically counterintuitive to his original audience. And let the record show that this radically counterintuitive statement makes sense only within the context of the resurrection of Jesus. There were many so-called Messiahs round about the first century – Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Judas of Galilee, his son Menahem ben Judah, Simon bar Kokhba, and so on. When they got too troublesome, each of them in turn was killed by the authorities, and the movements they led were brutally suppressed. No one but specialist-historians remembers them today. What was different about Jesus? The Gospels attest, of course, that he was tortured and killed by the Romans – just like all these other so-called messiahs – and Jesus’ followers were dispersed. The difference in the case of Jesus was that his followers went around, after he had been crucified, saying that he had risen from the dead – that they had seen him, touched him, talked with him. And all but one of them, to a man, chose to be murdered themselves rather than deny what they had seen.
It is the resurrection of Jesus that puts the cross in its proper perspective. The resurrection makes of the cross a source of “glory” for Jesus’ disciples. The cross thus becomes the instrument, as Paul says, by which the world and me are crucified to one another. It becomes the means by which the world’s most powerful powers are shown up, in the light of eternity, to be impotent shams and frauds. And this is why we may say – why we DO say – that we are SAVED by the cross, by what happened on it. Because the event that took place on the cross set us free from the domination of even the world’s most powerful powers. It shows us the TRUTH. It shows that love for God, perfect fidelity to him, overcomes the worst, and that “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2.16) lead nowhere; that there is no longer any possibility of constructing anything meaningful or lasting out of any of it; that all their promises of peace or security or happiness lead nowhere – that they have always led only nowhere. As Paul put it: “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision,” – in other words no programmatic secularism nor religiosity of any sort, is worth the paper its printed on – but, as Paul says, only “NEW CREATION,” only the work that Jesus has done on and by means of the cross, where the whole plan of God from the beginning reaches a climax and is fulfilled, and where a new way of BEING is inaugurated and becomes accessible to any who want it. All that matters is NEW CREATION.
So what now? Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It commemorates the anniversary of the discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem, and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the early 4th century. But, by extension, its also the day on which WE exalt the cross, when we lift it up and honor it, because of all that God has done for us by means of the Holy Cross. But all of the foregoing has implications for how we should live. Jesus said, “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also,” (John 12.26), and several times throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that they must take up their own crosses and follow him. And so, again, Paul says in Galatians that he bears on his body the marks of Jesus (Galatians 6.17). When we see what has been done for us on the cross, we must allow our lives to be molded by it, so that we can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2.20).
But this has practical implications. It must mean for us a preference for victims over perpetrators, a refusal to look for happiness or ultimate value in anything the world offers: neither in material goods, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the jobs we have, nor even in our tribal associations or family relationships. In fact, to be a disciple of Jesus means to be constantly examining our consciences, constantly on the look-out for these attachments, and constantly renouncing them, constantly offering them to God, along with our lives, our hearts, our whole being, in sacrifice. That’s what confession is all about: giving everything to God, the good as well as the bad.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have looked for happiness or validation in excessive drinking, or the abuse of my sexuality, or the abuse of power… I’ve been acquisitive and discontent, puffed up with pride, disparaging of my neighbor,” etc. In other words: I have ignored the Word of the Cross, and have sought to build an identity out of something other than the gift of myself in union with the sacrifice of Christ-crucified; I have fallen back into the delusion of thinking that the cycle of the world’s violence can be constructive. In short: I have lived other than in imitation of, and union with, Jesus, the only righteous one.
Jesus said, “if any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” If any would attain the place of transfixed happiness, if any would see glory, if any would have abundant life, let him be a follower of Jesus; let him exalt the cross; let him walk the way of the cross; let him embrace the cross. Let him say from the heart:
“Far be it from me to glory except in the cross… by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.