Following three weeks away on annual leave, I’m finally catching up with everything that piled up during my time away. Apoologies for this being somewhat late, but here is my sermon for a week last Sunday. We kept the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is actually the 14th September. We held it a day late.
“I’ll give you something to believe”, said the White Queen to Alice, “I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!! Said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practise,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
There have been times in the Church’s history when it seems to have expected its members to believe, like the White Queen, in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. The medieval cult of saints with its miracles and relics is a case in point. Two years ago an exhibition opened at the British Museum, displaying some quite splendid reliquaries made to house some of these relics that became so popular – and important – in the medieval world. It showed sumptuously decorated objects designed to display such items as pieces of the true cross, the foot of Saint Blaise, the tooth of Saint John the Baptist, the hair of Saint John the Apostle, and even the breast milk of the virgin Mary. Medieval Christians, it seems were prepared to believe in a great deal of impossible things. Relics were big business. The relics of a particularly important saint could make a place rich. The pilgrimage centres of St James at Compostela, St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, the Three Kings at Cologne, and above all Rome, which had the tombs of Peter, Paul and innumerable other saints, bear testimony to this.
The Reformation brought with it some sanity to the whole affair, and it is no accident that the Anglican Church has no procedure for making people into saints – we simply remember important and influential Christians at some point in the churches year, usually the day of their death, without requiring them to have performed a certain number of miracles. And in it’s bout of evangelical religious fervour it disposed of many relics, including tragically many actually genuine ones, two prime examples being the relics of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, or Thomas Becket, and Saint Richard of Chichester, author of the famous prayer that still bears his name.
It might come as some surprise, therefore, to learn that yesterday – the 14th of September – the Church of England, along with the rest of the historic churches of East and West – celebrated a feast day, the origin of which is at the least questionable as far as many are concerned. At the Reformation, when the Church of England removed many of the old feast days from the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer because of its desire to get rid of what it saw as an unhealthy and superstitious approach to devotion, it kept this one in. Not only that, but in the recent revision of the liturgical calendar in the year 2000 it was elevated by the Church of England from a minor to a major feast day – a day on which all churches are required to celebrate holy communion. It is what we call a red-letter day – it’s printed in red in our prayer books and lectionaries. If you haven’t yet guessed – the day to which I refer is “Holy Cross Day” or “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” to give it its correct name.
It has been celebrated in the Church for over seventeen hundred years. After the Christian Constantine became emperor it was decided to excavate the holy places in Jerusalem. His mother Helena went to oversee the excavations and, amazingly, was present when a wooden cross was uncovered in the year 326. This was immediately recognised as the true cross – the cross on which Jesus had died. Feel free to ask, “But how could they possibly know?” The thing is, though, they firmly believed that it was the true cross. A church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was built upon the spot, and was consecrated on the evening of 13th September in the year 335. The following day, a Sunday, the precious relic was exposed from a high place within the building. The faithful were called to come and worship before the instrument of their Saviour’s death, the instrument of their salvation. Since that day, every year both the Eastern and Western Churches have observed the anniversary of the consecration as a feast day, as an occasion for glorying in the Cross of Christ – an opportunity to reflect upon the Cross away from the events of Holy Week.
Today churches around the world claim to have a piece of the true cross. There’s one at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Now, it’s often said that if you put together all the alleged pieces of the true cross together you’d have enough to make many crosses. It’s not actually true. Some years ago now, a scholar put together a list all the churches that claim to have a piece, and he worked out that if put together the pieces would, in fact, make less than one cross. It doesn’t prove they’re genuine, of course, but it does give the lie to the frequently repeated opinion that they must be all fake because there are too many of them.
I’m personally glad that, while many might be doubtful about the genuinness of the cross Helena claimed to have found, the Church has seen fit to continue including this day in our calendar. What Helena found may – or may not have been – the cross on which Jesus died. But it is, in a way, a symbol for us – a reminder that a real human being, Jesus the son of God, was crucified on a piece of wood taking the punishment of our sin upon us. For the fact is that the Cross, and all it means, is at the centre of our faith. We may not be able to believe that Helena found the Cross of Christ, but we do believe that through the cross Jesus gained salvation for us all. It is why the cross has become the universal identifying symbol of our faith, because the cross is the point at which flawed humanity and perfect divinity meet – the point at which God himself pays the price to redeem a sinful world. The fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, answers the deepest and most fundamental need in human experience. The need for acceptance and love, no matter what we are really like. And the cross shows us how God so loved the world that he reached out and embraced us by sending his Son.
To some it might seem impossible that a symbol of death could inspire so many, but for Christians for two thousand years and from every walk of life and culture and place, this symbol – the Cross of Jesus – has been a reminder and an inspiration. Jesus died for us, that we might have the gift of eternal life, and know the love of God. It is the Cross, and the Cross alone, which throughout the ages of Christian history has brought peace and comfort to the hearts of sinners, and given them the power to conquer their sins and rise to a higher and better way of life. On Sunday 14th September in the year 335 the true cross was lifted up that the faithful might come before it and worship the God who died on that cross for them, and in sorrow for the sins that placed him there.
To close with the words of the holy father, Pope Francis, from his sermon yesterday for the feast: The mystery of the Cross is a great mystery for mankind, a mystery that can only be approached in prayer and in tears … This is the course of the humanity’s story: a journey to find Jesus Christ the Redeemer, who gives his life for love. God, in fact, has not sent the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.