Holy Cross Sunday: Is It Worth It? by Brian Wilker-Frey
Brian Wilker-Frey is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) serving the people of St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Toronto.
September 14 doesn’t always fall on a Sunday, but when it does – as it does this year – many churches observe Holy Cross Sunday. But many don’t. Many pastors, myself included over the years, choose to flee Holy Cross Sunday and run for our lives toward whatever other options the lectionary provides for the day. Whatever those options might be they just have to be better than another morose examination of that vicious instrument of Jesus’ death!
In fact, one of the reasons for appointing another day besides Good Friday for a reflection on the cross is that it provides an alternative opportunity “for a joyous commemoration of [Jesus’] redeeming death with a festal emphasis not appropriate during Holy Week.”
But that’s not at all why I’ve chosen Holy Cross for my reflection. I’ve chosen this festival because of the opportunities the symbol of the cross offers for holding up justice and peace as hallmarks of the Christian faith.
Have you ever wondered what symbol would dominate our houses of worship if Jesus had died some way other than crucifixion? Say, for example, Jesus had a terrible fall during Holy Week tripping over his own flowing gown, hitting his head on the ground. Would long flowing gowns hang above our altars today in place of the cross if that’s how he had died instead? Or, say Jesus cleverly avoided the cross all his life, continued for another 40 years teaching, preaching, healing, and inspiring others to walk in his way of life and joy and at the end of a long, fruitful life he died of a simple viral infection, but rose again three days later to declare his victory over death and the tomb. What symbol would represent this death?
My point, as clumsy as the above illustrations may be, is that the cross as the means of Jesus’ death is not simply an accident of Roman history. The cross was the very symbol of injustice, oppression, violence, and fear. It was designed to be that way in order for the Pax Romana – the “Peace of Rome” – to dominate all lands and peoples who fell under the boots of Roman soldiers. Crosses lined the highways and byways of Roman occupied territories for the expressed purpose of silencing those who might rise up with some alternative form of peace, like caring for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, for one example; or turning the other cheek, for another.
Lifting high the cross on this day – that instrument of death in which Rome placed so much faith to bolster their empire – proclaims that even though fear and death and violence and oppression seem to carry the day, it is love and compassion and liberation and healing that ultimately triumph and inspire us to continue in our work of justice making.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” Numbers 21:8
Sometimes I find it odd that so many of our children’s nursery rooms are decorated with cute images from the story of Noah and the Ark. There’s the ark with pairs of anthropomorphised lions and tigers and giraffes on board smiling and waving along side Noah and his wife as the waters that cruelly drowned all other life on earth recede. That is the story, isn’t it? Why do our children not suffer traumatization from constant exposure to this horrific story? Maybe because, despite the cruel elements of the story, it is really a story of new life and forgiveness.
In the same way, this cruel story from Numbers about God sending serpents to kill the Israelites whining for want of a decent meal and water in the desert isn’t really about the death of these Israelites, but about finding life when they look upon the thing that they once so feared.
It’s not enough to hold up the cross, say thank you Jesus, and carry on with the worship service. No, on this day we are called to lift up high in the desert all that causes fear; all violence in our world; all oppression that holds people down. Like the LGBT community that has reclaimed the word ‘queer’ with which they have been and continue to be taunted, on this Holy Cross Day we can hold up “all that rebels against God’s reign, that strives to corrupt and destroy God’s creation, and that draws us from the love of God,” renounce them and die to them just as Jesus died on the cross and as we die in the waters of baptism, only to rise up again in new life, peace, love, wholeness, forgiveness, and hope.