Once several years ago the church I was serving provided a “ministry of space” to the gifted and talented program of the local high school. Though we at the church were not directly involved, it was an interesting experience for us – over the course of a couple of semesters, we played host to art classes, a writer’s workshop and even rehearsals for a jazz saxophone group! To say the least, the air around us was alive with the spark and crackle of young energy and creativity.
Actually, I think that that the fact that these students were meeting in a church had an effect on them as well. For instance, one day after a writing class I noticed some sentences that had been written on the chalkboard by students as starting points for their essays. Apparently, the theme was religion, but rather than the usual collection of scriptural references or assorted statements of faith which would have been the norm for us, what was written here were hard questions of the nature of belief and the tradition of the church. One such question I’ve never forgotten: “What can you say about a religion that has as its central symbol an instrument of execution?”
Was it, as I initially suspected, a mixture of teenage bravado and rebellion? Maybe. But it was also clear that this young writer was struggling to find some meaning in a symbol he or she saw every day but couldn’t understand. And in a world that often reduces the emblem of the cross to a work of art or a beautiful piece of jewelry, I suspect that this young person is not alone in asking the question.
In truth, what the cross represents is not at all beautiful: it is, in fact, an object of terror, torture and death, almost certainly the worst possible means of execution during biblical times. Historians and biblical scholars (to say nothing of modern day medical experts who understand the human physiology of such things) stress that pain of crucifixion was intense, the suffering constant, the thirst unbearable and the humiliation unspeakable; it was, truly, a horrible and excruciating way to die, a word that, in fact, comes from the Latin translation of “from the cross.” And yet the very instrument of that agony, which hangs at the front of nearly every Christian chapel and sanctuary, is what Paul spoke of when he wrote, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
To anyone looking at the cross from a distance, it must indeed seem an unlikely symbol of a religion professing to be about the business of love, peace and justice. But then, drawing closer to this cross of Jesus Christ as we do during these days of Lent, we begin to see, in the words of the old song, “its wondrous attraction.” Understand that it is not the appearance of the cross, or even the event of the crucifixion itself in which we glory as Christians. Rather, it is what was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross: our redemption, our salvation paid for in full by his blood. It is about the glorious Easter resurrection that follows the horror of a Good Friday afternoon. It’s the victory of life – life abundant and eternal – over death, revealed to us early on a resurrection morning when the women arrived at the tomb to find the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. And it’s a gift, given to you and to me and to the world by the grace and intent of God Almighty.
Over the next ten days or so, as Christians and congregations we’ll gather in any number of different settings of worship and prayer; drawing ever nearer to the cross as we do. From Palm Sunday parades to Services of Tenebrae, we do these things not merely to recall this sacrifice made on our behalf, but also, perchance, to somehow even begin to wrap our hearts around the sheer enormity of it. As I am fond of saying to congregations about now, you can’t get to Easter without first encountering Good Friday.
As we make that journey with Jesus, however, it’s equally important, remember that neither his story nor ours reaches its end with Christ’s passion on Friday, but reaches its climax with his resurrection on Easter Day. Ultimately, we are drawn to his cross for even in its shadow, we are made newly aware of the brilliance of divine light that has come into the world and shines into our hearts. It is as we so often sing in the old hymn:“In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; All the light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime.”
May our journey to the cross on this particular Holy Week serve to fill us with that that sacred light which brings us life as new and fresh as springtime.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry