Holy Cross Day

A little late, but here is the sermon that the priest I live with preached for Holy Cross Day here at St John’s.

On this day, the 14th September, one thousand six hundred and seventy nine years ago, a part of the cross of Jesus, discovered by Saint Helena, was taken out from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – out from the church which had been dedicated just the day before – taken outside so that all the believers in Jesus Christ could come and venerate it. Holy Cross Day is kept on this day to commemorate that event. And this year there seems to be a rather satisfactory symmetry about the date. It is of course today the 14th September 2014, and it so happens that the 14th September this year is a Sunday, so we can gather here together at our normal Sunday service on Holy Cross Day itself, to both commemorate that occasion in 335AD and to celebrate together the life giving cross of Jesus. It is appropriate too that we should have a baptism in our service today, as later I will sign N. with the sign of the Cross. How wonderful for her to be given that sign on Holy Cross Day.

We do have of course another day in the church’s year when we remember the cross, and I am sure if I asked you when that was there would be a sea of hands going up in the air – I hope there would! That day is obviously Good Friday, when we gather in church to remember the death of Jesus, and we come forward to venerate a cross in church, as the people of Jerusalem venerated a portion of what is called “The True Cross” in the year 335. But Good Friday is of necessity sombre. We are recalling then Jesus’s suffering and death upon the cross, and we remember then in a way that doesn’t anticipate the end of the story. We stay with the pain and desolation. That is why the church has this other day to remember the cross – a day to celebrate the cross. This is the day when we can be joyful and see the cross as part of the whole Jesus event – see the centrality of the cross in our faith through the lens of the resurrection. Today we celebrate the transformation of the cross from an instrument of torture and death, into a symbol of life giving power and hope.

So very quickly a bit of history. Constantine was the Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a Christian before her son’s conversion, went to what we know as the Holy Land on pilgrimage and to search for the places where Jesus had lived and died. This was very early archaeology – Time Team in the 4th Century. She did actually do some digging! Interestingly some modern archaeologists do think she actually got it right. Whether she found the actual cross on which Jesus died is up for debate of course, but today we celebrate not a piece of wood, but what that wood means to us today, and what Jesus’s death on that wooden structure has done for us.

Helena located the site of the crucifixion and the burial of Christ, close together in Jerusalem. Some traditions say she was helped by an old Jewish resident who had had the knowledge of the locations passed down in his family, and other traditions say she was helped by the fact that the Romans had built pagan shrines on Christian sites, trying to stamp out the new religion. The important result of her find was that she had the church of the Holy Sepulchre built over these two holy Christian places, and part of the cross that she had found was kept inside the church. From the time of Constantine the cross became the symbol of Christianity. It had been in use before – it is a very early symbol – but from this time on it came into common use and it adorned churches and acquired power in its own right – a symbol to ward off evil and a symbol to focus on in prayer.

For Christians it is the cross of Christ that saved each one of us and saved the world. It was on the cross that our sins were forgiven and it was through the cross that the way to God was opened. There was both a reality and a deeper mysticism in what happened on the cross. Jesus died for our sins, taking the punishment that we deserved, and then he rose from the dead. Through the cross, death itself was conquered and the way to God and heaven was opened for all. But in a way, we don’t fully understand how this happened. We know it is true but can’t always put it into words. We have a go at putting in to words – the Bible does this and many of the hymns we are singing today have a go at explanation. But what happened on the cross, the changing of our relationship to God, is mysterious and mystical, and in many ways beyond words. And over time the very symbol of the cross took on this mysticism. The symbol has power beyond itself.

It is a very simple symbol – some say the vertical reminds us of the divine – it goes upwards to heaven – and the horizontal reminds us of the earth and our lives, and the cross unites them. This was of course the essence of the work of Jesus, who though God became human, and who through his death made it possible for us to be united with the divine. That is that the gift of grace which flows out from the cross enables us to become more like Christ. We often tap into this power of the cross without really understanding it. That doesn’t matter – that is what symbols are for. They help us connect with things beyond themselves without us needing to fully understand. So for many Christians looking at a cross is an act of prayer and devotion in itself. It needs no words. Other Christians make the sign of the cross upon themselves – uniting themselves with Jesus and the outpouring of grace on the cross through making the sign. Again prayer without words. When a priest anoints someone with oil for healing, they make the sign of the cross on the forehead and palms of the hands – that is a cross for strengthening. In a few moments N. will receive the sign of the cross on her forehead as I say the words: Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.

This is why many of us wear a cross – round our necks or in a lapel. It is a sign that we are Christian and not ashamed to be known as such. Of course many people wear crosses without this intention, but I think if they wear one then maybe some of its power does influence them or protect them. There is nothing wrong with any of us using the cross to claim Christ as he claims us, and as we touch a cross or make the sign of the cross to ask for his protection from all those things that can pull us away from him or simply those things that frighten us.

Many people have to come value a holding cross – like this – in times when prayer is difficult or we are ill, just holding the cross is a comfort and we feel united with Jesus without words. If we do need words we can simply say “As I hang on to this cross, Lord hang on to me”. People who use a holding cross often find it can lead them into prayer or just helps them focus in prayer. You can get smaller ones than this that can be used in the hand without being seen – a way of praying on the train or bus without being ostentatious in any way. They also slip in the pocket or handbag, and can be touched at any time to remind us of Christ’s presence or to ask for his strength. A friend of mine has recently written a little book called “Travels with a Holding Cross”. It is about what happened when she gave holding crosses away to people or gave them other gifts as she travelled and prayed with the cross in her hand. Ask me about the book after the service if you are interested. I am going to end this talk on Holy Cross Day with a snippet from the end of that book.

Christine writes:

“I told a friend ‘I’m writing a little book about my Holding Cross adventures’…..she knew what I meant.

‘Have you included the one you gave to….?’ She said her husband’s name. I hadn’t…….worse still I was sure his name wasn’t on the list….why not?

Then I remembered……I hadn’t handed the cross to him……she had…

She carried on talking “He still has it….he won’t go out without it……it’s even been in the washing machine!”

That made me smile……I suppose a symbol of hope that’s been around for 2000 years can survive a bit of soapy water….even the hottest wash….and the fastest spin!”

And so now I pray that the cross of Jesus Christ will hold all of you through life’s hottest washes and fastest spins. Amen.