Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld

Eve of the Holy Cross; September 13, 2017

Diaconal Ordination of Sandi Albom, Shawn LaFrance, Charles Nichols

Texts: Philippians 2:5-11

            John 12:31-36b

We gather tonight to ordain three new deacons of the Church on the Feast of the Holy Cross. Charlie, Sandi, Shawn, you have each travelled the way of the cross to this moment in your lives when you stand ready and eager to dedicate your lives to service in the name of the Crucified Jesus and his Risen Body, the Church. From now on, I hope that whenever September 14th comes around, you will pause in your prayers and reflect on this new anniversary on your personal calendar. What will Holy Cross Day mean for you and your ministry as a deacon, as a servant of Jesus, his church and his world? How might the observance of the day, and your being ordained on this day, shape or inform your diaconate and your ministry as deacon? 

A little investigation into the meaning of this feast would be helpful. Some history that I will quote from a commentary on the Book of Common Prayer. [1]

This feast is known as "The Exaltation of the Holy Cross" in the Eastern church and in missals and sacramentaries of the Western church, and it is known as "The Triumph of the Cross" in the Roman Catholic Church. It was one of the 12 great feasts in the Byzantine liturgy. The 1979 BCP is the first American Prayer Book to include Holy Cross Day.”

Historically, the feast has been associated with the dedication on Sept. 14, 335, of a complex of buildings built by the Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337) in Jerusalem on the sites of the crucifixion and Christ's tomb.

Constantine's mother, Helena (c. 255- c. 330), supervised the construction of the shrine, and a relic believed to be the cross was discovered during the work of excavation.  [I believe that the church of the Holy Sepulchre in the center of the Old City in Jerusalem contains some of the remains of the building that had been destroyed, rebuild, destroyed, and rebuilt by centuries of conflict among the three Abraham faiths over the centuries].

Mythologies around the True Cross abound. The artist Pierro della Fransceco in the apse of the Church of St. Francis in Arrezzo, Italy has a series of frescos that tell the story of Tree of Life--you know, the other tree in the Garden of Eden--that had become the source of the wood for the Cross on which our Lord was crucified.  So, there’s a kind of magical power around the idea of the true cross, not unrelated to the magical power of the Indiana Jones movies about the Arc of the Covenant or the Holy Chalice, the Holy Grail.

All this is to say that there is a layer of meaning about the cross that has little to do with what actually happened on the cross, which was, let’s be honest, a bloody execution motivated by religious insecurity and at the hands of a thin-skinned and anxious empire.

Remember, it was Constantine, a non-Christian, who before a battle against a competing Emperor in the year 312 was told in a vision that if his army bore the symbol of the chi-rho, a form of the cross on their shield, they would be victorious.  They wore the cross, Constantine won the battle at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine converted to Christianity, making it the state religion, and in very short order, Christians were no longer a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire, but enjoyed a place of privilege in government, society, and the economy.  Thus Christendom, the era when the marriage between Christianity and the presumption of worldly power, military might, and privilege was born.  As was stated, in some places, today is known not as Holy Cross Day, but the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the triumph of a Christianity that, having once been oppressed, then becomes aligned with, and an agent of, the oppressor.

Which is not, praise God, what we are celebrating tonight. What we celebrate tonight is a triumph of a much more lasting, eternally enduring, utterly more liberating.  Because, brothers and sisters, Christendom is dead. Indeed, there are many in our culture, nationally, locally, and even in the Church, who grieve and kick against the notion that Christians should accept their status as being on the margins of a society, and who insist that Church needs to reclaim its former entitled and privileged place in society.  Many reject or bristle at the notion of a Church that identifies with the weak, the oppressed, the homeless, the unarmed, the diseased, the rejected, the addicted. And yet, these are precisely the qualities of being human that were lifted up. By Jesus. In his body.  On the hard wood of the cross.

In “by this sign we conquer,” it is not a triumph of military or political power that we celebrate, but the power of weakness, of utter surrender, of vulnerability. Of self-emptying through which the Lordship of Christ springs and brings light, as Jesus says tonight, in the darkness. These are the realities of our frail existence that make the cross we bear indeed, true.  And they are the qualities that the devoted follower of Jesus Christ is called to accept, embrace, and see as the means of our salvation. As an ancient prayer goes, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”  As deacons, you are called to proclaim, remind, and even annoy the Church (including your bishop!) with the message of the True Cross, that path of solidarity with humanity, both broken and beautiful, as none other than the way to the renewal of Christ’s Church. A story of that way to God through the human comes to mind.

Years ago, my oldest son and I had a chance to visit friends in Southern California. It was the week after Easter, and, after a long cold snowy winter in Western Mass, we were looking forward to seeing sun and ocean and to cast off our wet New England wool for a bathing suit and running shorts and t-shirts. On the boardwalk along the beach, we saw roller-bladers with ear plugs, sunglasses. Everyone seemed so fit, sculpted, glamorous, very wealthy, healthy, bronzed, enhanced. On a run along the board walk, I turned to Willie and said, “Toto, we are not in the land of Emily Dickinson anymore.”  It was Sunday morning, and the only reference I saw of Jesus were small gold crosses on tanned men doing their bench presses on Muscle Beach.

We turned to run on the beach itself.  Then in the distance I saw something in the mist of the surf.  An assembly was gathering. I saw a huge white banner flapping in the sea breeze.  As we ran closer I began to make out that people were coming together around the banner which was staked next to a small amplifier speaker and a man with a microphone sitting on the sand.  “Come on in, friends,” he said in a gentle voice.  I looked around and there were people coming who seemed as sleek and groomed as though they were from Hollywood. Others were pushing what must have been stolen shopping carts, their wheels getting clogged in the beach sand. Every shade of skin was there: there were Anglos, Latino, black, Asian, native American, men, women, transgendered, gay, straight. Old, wrinkled, gray-bearded, teenager and middle-aged. Some seemed to be carrying the worn torn soiled sleeping bags they’ve lived in near the pier.  All were there.  The whole span of humanity. “What is this?” I wondered.

And then the man with the microphone shouted, “Good Morning everybody. My name is Jorge, and I am an Addict and it’s a beautiful day!”

And the hundred or so gathering…they were still coming onto the beach, shouted back, “Hi, Jorge!” 

And I looked again what was flapping in the breeze. It was a large, huge, white flag.  A white flag. The symbol of surrender!  We had stumbled upon what I would later learn was the largest twelve step meeting in California.  Outside. Every Sunday. Under the sign of the white flag that could just as easily meant to those gathered…“by this sign conquer.”

It could have been the cross, but for many of us, the cross is a symbol of privilege, of religious domination, of anything but surrender. I have spoken to Jews and Muslims who have been the victims of persecution or ridicule in the name of the Church who really get nervous around proud displays of the Cross.  This is part of our heritage, too.

But I wonder what would our church look like if we see the sign of the cross with the same joy, sense of liberation, serenity, purpose and fellowship as did all those on the beach who gathered to admit their powerlessness, their limitations, and, putting aside all need to keep up appearances, sat in the dirt with each other and asked for their God to get them through just one more day.

That’s what the Holy Cross means for me.  Another story, that I think you probably have your own version of, and if you don’t yet, you will as a deacon.  Last Sunday I walked out of a Church where I believed I, as their bishop, helped. At least I did no harm.  I was feeling relieved, exhilarated, even gratified in my work and role.  I was walking to my car parked on the street and I could hear a Jeep coming down the road.  Not wanting to open the door and get side swept, I waited for it to pass.  And just as it did, the passenger chose that exact moment to flick his cigarette butt right at me.  So much for my happy, triumphant Sunday.  Again, if you haven’t had an experience like that yet, you will as a deacon.  The collar invites these events, sometimes.

My blood began to boil, as I thought to offer another sign to the Jeep as it revved past me. But then, by God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, I chose to breathe, and even smile, and to pray. I waved.  This is where we are now.  Post Christendom. Post Constantine, relying solely on the Christ who had much worse thrown at him and who answered ridicule, hatred, and insults with love, prayer, forgiveness, prayer. This is the way God calls us.  This is, sometimes, the way of the cross.  Pray. And there is a power in that that stems from more than any accomplishment, any worldly or ecclesiastic success we might enjoy. The power that comes from the love of God who chose love over retaliation and humiliation over domination. I don’t know if my smile or my prayer accomplished anything beyond letting my sadness and anger dissipate, or anything beyond sending a ripple of peace and light into a sin-darkened road.  Just a ripple, and that may have been the most significant thing that I could have done that whole day. Pray and lift up our humanity to God. 

So, on this day, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness, And being found in human form

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalted him.

May your service as deacons be the means by which you carry the awful and beautiful cross of Jesus, and may God supply you with sufficient joy and grace in following the way he leads, that you may find true life and peace in your service.  Thank you for saying yes to this calling.  AMEN.

[1] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/holy-cross-day

Posted
AuthorLaura Simoes