Preached at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi.
Hebrews 10:16-25; Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:42
What a beautiful cross, people comment about the one I've worn for years now, with its soft silver swirls, and they often ask where it came from. I pause, wondering whether I should say it is from some quiet cloister or a cathedral far away, or that it is an heirloom or antique. But it's not. It's from...Cancun, and I thought it was beautiful, too, when I saw it in a marketplace there, displayed with hundreds of other beautiful crosses, some with simple smooth shining surfaces, others more elaborate, many bearing the body of One broken in death, or One triumphant over it.
What a beautiful cross, people never would have said two thousand years ago, and certainly not on this day. What a horrible, hateful, hideous cross it was when Jesus hung there, when it was used as an imperial instrument not only of death but of terror, to crucify criminals and to kill hope. What an ugly, awful, agonizing cross, rough with splinters and nails, slick with sweat and blood, bearing its victims up into breathless air. What a dark, dreadful cross, on which was fastened flesh and bone, body and blood, life and innocence and conviction and love and light from light, true God from true God. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
There was nothing beautiful about that cross. There was nothing good about that day. He was betrayed at Gethsemane, denied at the gate, and most of his friends were gone by Golgotha. He had healing the sick and helping the poor held against him. Love was a liability, kindness a crime. In the end it was easy to nail Jesus down, his arms had always opened too wide. He was despised, rejected, beaten, mocked, stripped, crowned with thorns, and...what a bitter cross.
Forty days of ashes and dust in the end do little to remove our despair. For all our repentance, we know our sin betrays and denies and abandons him still. He suffers on our account. Looking up at our Lord from the foot of the cross, we would offer one last confession, and hope against hope that he will spare us.
But that is not why we are here. There is no prayer of confession today, and only once will we call ourselves sinners. We are ever in need of forgiveness, and on this day no less, but that is not why we are here.
We are here to do something much harder. But it is something beautiful. And it is something good. Dear People of God, we will read in a moment, Our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. Here at the end of the holy season of Lent, walking no longer apart from Christ, but being loved by him and called as servants and friends, we will not only follow him to Golgotha but embrace with him deepest and darkest suffering and death, cross it with heaven, and with God's help raise it up and heal it. Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being made raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new. That, sisters and brothers, is why we are here. That, I daresay, sisters and brothers, is always why we are here.
We are here, because as Christ entered into who we are even as fully and deeply as death, so did he hallow all of who we are even as fully and deeply as death. Brother James Koestner writes, "It was not because Jesus was oblivious to pain that enabled him to undergo such cruelty. It was because he knew the depth of human grief and loss and despair. And he knew that, because he loved." Today is about how Jesus suffered and died, but it is also about how he lived, with and for and in love that does not measure or weigh or reserve or hesitate or exclude or fear. We are here on this good and awful day, at this beautiful and terrible cross, because we cannot love this way without him.
If we will go where Christ goes, we must come to this day, we must come to this moment, we must come to this cross, not just to look up at it for our own healing but, trembling, to gaze out from it for the healing of the world he so dearly loves and calls us to love with him, praying for everyone according to their needs, helping and healing and showing what kindness we can. If we will go where Christ goes, we must be willing for our hands and feet to ache, to find no rest, to suffer and be held of no account, to be despised, to be rejected, to be acquainted with infirmity and grief. If we will go where Christ goes, we must be willing to love until it is finished.
Let us pray. Almighty and Eternal God, so draw our hearts to you this day, so stretch out our arms, so move our feet, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so direct our prayers, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly and always and everywhere you go dedicated to you. And then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Artwork: "The Beauty of the Cross," by Daniel Bonnell.