The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18C)
September 8, 2019
Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
What with Holy Cross Day coming up on September 14 and today’s gospel about taking up our cross and following Jesus, I have been put very much in mind of this particular object. When I was curate at the Church of the Advent in Boston, the Rector had in his personal collection a reliquary he had bought in the Paris flea market years before. In it was a sliver of wood—just a splinter really—purporting to be a relic of the True Cross. The reliquary was actually quite a simple thing. While made of silver, it wasn’t very big or ostentatious. It had a little label on the back, in an eighteenth-century hand, explaining what it contained. He would put it out on the altar of the Lady Chapel on Holy Cross Day and we would have the chance to pray before it. I loved it. Every time I have been back to Paris since and have gone up to Clignancourt to wander around the Marché au Puces, I have scoured all the stalls in the hopes that I, too, might find a similar object and have my own piece of the true cross, something we could display here.
The Cross is an incredibly appealing object. It is so tangible, so tactile and its relics have always been hugely popular. The piece held in the Saint Chapelle in Paris had to be protected in its reliquary so that people would be prevented from biting off a piece to take with them when they bent down to kiss it on Good Friday.
In his odd, but amusing novel, Helena, Evenyn Waugh tells a fictionalised account of the life of Saint Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, imagined as a 20s-era “bright young thing,” who went to the Holy Land towards the end of her life to seek the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Waugh posits that she wanted to find this object because she was tired of all the philosophical debates raging in the Church at the time of the Council of Nicea. She asks Pope Sylvester:
Where is the cross, anyway? .... It must be somewhere. Wood doesn’t just melt like snow. It’s not three hundred years old. The temples here are full of beams and panelling twice that age. It stands to reason God would take more care of the cross than of them. (1)
She is fascinated with its materiality. It is something to be found, touched, held. It is a physical object that she imagines, if found, would be a tangible connection with the past; something that connects you and me with the historical Jesus. The pope, however, has a quick answer for her, “Nothing ‘stands to reason’ with God. If he had wanted us to have it, not doubt He would have given it to us. But he hasn’t chosen to. He gives us enough.” But she presses on:
But how do you know He doesn’t want us to have it—the cross, I mean? I bet He’s just waiting for one of us to go and find it—just at this moment when it’s most needed. Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it. (2)
Waugh’s Helena prefers this real, physical object as a point of connection to Jesus to all the philosophical discussion aimed at conforming Christian theology with Greek philosophy. And that is very appealing.
When Jesus says, therefore, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple,” we, who know the whole story, who know the meaning of the cross, its physicality, its weight and purpose, we understand its full import. We know this because of who he is, because of what he taught, because of the challenge to the established order that he prophesied. We know that the Romans, in consort with the leaders of the Jews, arrested Jesus, condemned him to die, handed him the instrument of his execution, forced him to carry it through the city, nailed him to it, hoisted him up on it, and let him die there in full sight of the people.
Jesus literally took up his cross knowing that what he faced was pain and suffering. He also knew that because of what he preached, what he taught, who he is, that in the end God’s purpose would be vindicated. He knew that love would win, and that the Kingdom of God would usher in an age of the reversals that he preached.
This is the full weight and meaning of taking up that actual piece of wood. It is this that Jesus would have us consider as we make the choice to follow him. Being a Christian is something that needs to be considered, Jesus tells us. The Christian life is something that asks us to reflect before we commit to it. We may be swept up in enthusiasm for Jesus. Some may feel drawn to him because of his charisma, the gravitational force of his personality; some because of the idea of him and what he represents. But once we are drawn to him, Jesus asks us if we are sure, reminds us about that actual piece of wood he will have dragged through the streets of Jerusalem. He reminds us that he is neither a charmer nor just an idea, but the very son of God who suffered on a particular day, in a certain place, and on that very cross and was raised on the third day. He tells us we must remember the reality of his life, death, and resurrection.
He also tells us that this is the natural thing to do, that weighing the cost of an important decision is something that any reasonable person would, and should, do. This is what Jesus is telling us in those stories about the person who puts up a tower and the king who sends armies off to war. Everything in life should be considered with all the facts before us.
Jesus tells us up front that the Christian life is not an easy one. He tells us that we have to make hard choices and may have to give up, offer up, some of our privileges, our treasure, forgo certain comforts. This has been the sum of all the lessons we have heard this summer. He is showing us that there is a choice for us to make and, in the words of Deuteronomy, he is asking us to “choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God,”
At the same time Jesus is showing us that we have it within ourselves to make this choice for “life” and do this work. We know how to pray, we know how we are supposed to treat each other, treat our neighbour, and he has taught us about who our neighbours are. He has taught us how we are to handle our possessions and what value we are to place on our labour.
Jesus has given us all we need to take up that cross. He has shown us how this piece of wood, a symbol of torture and oppression, can become for us a sign of our defiance of the world’s values, a sign of our acceptance of another better order that prioritises love, and, ultimately, a sign of our love for him and for each other. Let us, therefore, take up the cross together, and follow him.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 6 September 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume