Some 26 years ago, in my first Clinical Pastoral Education residency, one of my periodic responsibilities was orientation of new nurses to working with chaplains. It was usually a straightforward process – some description of the work, of policies and practices, and how to access us, followed by a few questions, and then a pleasant farewell until we met on the floors.
One, though, stood out as different. In the discussion one new nurse spoke of a recent event when a chaplain had been requested and had not arrived. That was embarrassing enough; but was made worse when, reviewing the date and time, I discovered the errant chaplain was me! I made my apologies, discussed how we might improve the system, and finished the orientation. A couple of the other new nurses paused before leaving and whispered that the complaining nurse was “weird,” and had been “difficult” in other meetings, as if to apologize. However, the woman herself hung back, waiting with more to say.
She began with, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you; but there was a problem.” I simply agreed, and acknowledged that it was a legitimate concern. Then, she said, “I have something to show you.” She reached into her blouse and pulled out a pendant: a small cross with a piece of crystal embedded in it; and in the crystal, a small dark sliver. It was a reliquary! She said, “In the crystal is a piece of the true Cross on which Jesus died. It’s been in my family for 400 years!”
I will admit that the first thought to cross my mind was to recall a statement one actor or another had put into the mouth of Henry VIII in his monastery-busting phase; something to the effect that there were “enough pieces of the true Cross in Christendom to rebuild St. John’s in Lateran.” This, of course, I managed not to say to her. What I said to her was, “Wonderful! or “Amazing!” or something similar. When she offered, I held the reliquary gently. I showed proper respect for the small piece and thanked her when she promised to pray for me; and she went off to her next meeting, happy she had shared her holy secret.
It’s late tonight. The Feast of the Holy Cross is coming to a close; and if, as a Christian, this is not just another day to me, so even more as an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Anglican Benedictine order for men, this is a day I note.
And like virtually everyone else, I wrestle with exactly what to do with this day. Most of the major feasts of the Church recall or refer to events, usually events in the life of Christ or of the early Church. Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, just to hit the high points – all of these are events.
Most of the other “red letter days” of the Church recall persons. There are days for the twelve Apostles, for the four Evangelists, for Mary Magdalene, “Apostle to the Apostles.” and of course Mary the Blessed Mother (the August date; arguably, although she’s intimately involved, the Annunciation and the Visitation, to take two examples, are more important as events in the life of Christ).
But the Feast of the Holy Cross is the only major feast of the Church referring us to an object. I grant you, it’s not just any object; it’s the instrument of the death of Christ. Still, it’s neither an event nor a person. Just what are we to do with it?
MadPriest has posted a sermon for the Feast of the Holy Cross over at “Of Course I Could Be Wrong....” He argues that it is the crucifix that demonstrates the Cross in its full meaning – that the Cross empty of Christ is empty of meaning as well. But in this instance, I think he is wrong, as good as the sermon is. I think it is the cross itself, whether as crucifix, or Christ Triumphant, or simply bare, that hold our imagination.
I think that is indeed because it was the instrument of Christ’s death. But more to the point, as I think about it tonight I think it did make a difference what that instrument was. It did make a difference how Christ died.
It’s not that crucifixion was the only way the Romans could accomplish a slow, agonizing, public death. Read the stories of the early Christian martyrs and you’ll discover that Imperial Romans could be quite creative in making death lingering and painful. Throwing onto a heated pan or roasting on a grate were apparently common. Being thrown to savage animals in the public games, “breaking on the wheel,” and flogging were also popular. Jesus might have suffered a public and shameful death in any of those ways. And what then might our symbol have been? Various of the saints have included in their iconography, at least in the West, instruments of their deaths. We might have had fire, or the lion, or the wheel. We might have revered one of those, if only that were how Christ died.
But there is a significant difference, it seems to me, between the Cross and those other means of death. It is that the Cross itself is so very passive. Fire and lion and bull had already been chosen as religious symbols by various other traditions precisely because they so demonstrate power and strength. They are active, moving, with power to tear and break and consume. They were chosen because the made tangible strength and destructive power.
But it is not so with the Cross. It does not in itself break or consume. It stands, hard enough, strong enough, but it does nothing on its own. It is the weakness of the Cross that highlights the weakness of Christ, the weakness through which Christ was victorious of us and for our salvation.
After all, it wasn’t really the Cross that killed. What killed was gravity, and the very frailness of the human body in gravity’s grip. The Cross simply stood there. Certainly, its height was part of what made the tool attractive as a way of utilizing gravity. It was also significant in fulfilling Scripture that the Messiah should be “lifted up.” But the Cross itself was passive, immobile, weak in its own way. That was how it came to be the ideal setting for God to demonstrate the weakness he was prepared to embrace for us, with us. For it was in weakness that was found the strength to release God’s love into the world, and to begin the world’s re-creation.
That’s why, I think, the Cross, even the bare, empty Cross, still speaks to us of the all-giving love of God. Even the instrument of Christ’s death was one of weakness, of apparent impotence. Not only did Christ choose weakness instead of power; he chose to show it on an instrument of weakness instead of power.
These days, and in all days as near as I can tell, it is tempting to reach to power. All our arguments seem to fall into that, however we may pay lip service to service or to victimhood. That’s why I think it important that Christ died on a Cross, and that the Cross became the symbol for this faith, the faith in the One who in weakness managed to overturn the universe. Whether we see Christ on the Cross or not, the Cross itself still reminds us that it is through weakness that God has chosen to bring salvation: the weakness of a God who would love us enough to choose our death to bring us life; and the weakness of the passive, immobile, impotent object on which it occurred.