September 16, 2108
Homily for the Feast of the Holy Cross – September 16, 2018 – Christ Church, Ontario
Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Galatians 6: 14-17
Mark 8: 27-38
How many of you are wearing a cross? Is it simple or ornate? Does it look like an instrument of torture, as it originally was, or does it look like the tree of life, which is how Christians have resignified it, transforming its meaning?
Early Christians did not wear crosses around their necks but they did talk about the cross as their “glory”, something to be proud, as especially Paul does in his letters. “May I never boast of anything except the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6: 14). What did he mean? Being executed on a cross meant disgrace for one's name and shame for one's family. So, was Paul just crazy? Paul does openly admit in his letters that people talked about him and his preaching in such a way, and we have later witnesses who spoke of Christians mockingly as “those who adore a cross”, meaning, more or less, “those who adore an electric chair”. Would you wear an electric chair or a noose around your neck?
Later on, the cross as a symbol of identity became intertwined with power and domination. In the name of the cross, people have been slaughtered and subjugated. You might remember from your school books the picture of Christopher Columbus planting a cross on this continent and claiming it for the Spanish crown. Some people still use the cross today as a symbol of their pretended superiority. Our own hymns of victory and glory about the cross put us very much at risk of falling into the same trap. Yet, pushing aside the cross and saying that other aspects the early Christian tradition, such as the preaching and the healings of Jesus, should alone be placed in the center of today's Church is not, in my view, a good enough solution. In the first place, because Jesus' preaching and healing were the immediate reasons why he ended up on a cross, but also because preaching about the cross of Jesus was so central to Paul.
We need at least to try to understand what Paul meant when he preached his crazy Gospel. Paul found himself deeply transformed when he understood something about the death of Jesus on the cross. Although we have no reason to believe that Paul ever stopped considering himself a Jew, an observant Jew for that matter, he felt that his observances or anything that would make him different from others had become irrelevant. Starting with the event of his conversion, Paul initially perceived God at work in the resurrection of Jesus, and then very soon in his crucifixion as well. He understood the apparitions of Jesus after his shameful death on the cross as a clear indication that God was with Jesus, that God did not choose the side of the Empire who crucified Jesus, but the side of the humble and the despised, the side of the women regularly raped by the soldiers, the side of the people who were insulted and spat upon, mocked and tortured (see Isaiah 50). As somebody who is sitting here with us has taught us so eloquently, this was nothing new in the history of Judaism. If there is one constant in the Bible, that is God's choice of the side of the humbled and the despised over the rich and the powerful. Paul, therefore, did nothing else than bringing this idea to a new extreme. God, as presented in the Old Testament, is always on the side of the losers; Paul understood that God was with Christ, the loser, on the cross.
And Paul wanted to be on the side of Christ, or rather he felt he was brought to such side by the magnanimity of God, who made him understand that what is shame for the world is glory, and what is glory for the world should be shame. Those who mistreat and oppress others should be ashamed, while the oppressed should not feel shame anymore. It's not a matter of glorifying weakness per se, as the philosopher Nietzsche said about Christianity, even though he grasped the magnitude of the Christian revolution. It's a matter of giving back their dignity to the ones who have been violated and forced to feel ashamed for being poor, for being incapable of reaching certain goals; in short, for not being good enough.
Just as Paul saw that there was a danger for him in boasting about his Jewish identity, because he risked to lose sight of what God was actually doing, so we run the danger of boasting about being Christian and losing sight of what God is doing today. Christians should not be proud of being Christian, they should be proud of the cross, which is a totally different matter. Choosing as our symbol the cross, we make a commitment to be on the side of the losers, to reject outright as a heresy the so-called “prosperity Gospel”, and to be “crucified to the world”, as Paul says, that is, to be dead to the common way of thinking by which might makes right and the poor deserve what they got.
In the Gospel of Mark, today, Peter is ashamed of Jesus' weakness. He is ashamed of a Messiah who instead of being a glorious leader, tells his closest followers that he is going to be mocked, tortured, and eventually killed. Peter, says Jesus, thinks like the devil, that is, like the world. God, instead, is on the side of the loser, and God will resurrect the loser. Does, therefore, the loser become a victor? Yes and no. Jesus, seen alive by many people after his death, does not become a winner in a wordly sense: he does not sit on the throne of the Emperor in Rome and does not take revenge over his enemies. From the point of view of the world, he remains a victim that should be easily forgotten. It's only from the point of view of those who are on God's side that Jesus is the true leader, the true Messiah. It is because of them, of Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene and all the others, the healthy portion of the Church, that we keep remembering Jesus the victim during our ritual prayers at the altar. We have not forgotten him.
Those who stand with him today (you can call them Christians if you'd like, but it really does not matter) are therefore called to become like him, to bear their own cross. Far from meaning that we should accept suffering without complaining (which perhaps is a kind of wisdom but it is not Gospel wisdom) this saying points instead to a process of identification between the followers of Jesus and Jesus himself, a process which can only grow with time. Instead of trying to become more powerful, to accumulate and exercise power over others, we are called to leave behind such common way of thinking, taking up the side of the crucified, the side of God.
The victory of the cross is a paradoxical victory. It remains a defeat in the eyes of the world. We need to remind ourselves that when we associate ourselves with the victory of Jesus, we are really associating ourselves with his shame, and we consciously, even joyfully risk ending up as losers. But we are also stating that neither us, nor anybody else, should suffer insult and shame anymore. The shame which the powers of the world, the power of Satan, want the poor to feel, we send back to the sender. That is a precious part of our job as followers of Jesus: opposing and even mocking the devil!
So let us be very careful when we talk and sing about the cross. What does it mean for us today “lift high the cross”? The victory of Christ, of which we claim to partake is the victory of love over domination. So who are our enemies of which our antiphons speak today? Let us be very clear: our enemies are not those who do not believe like we do. Our enemies are the demons in our mind, in our collective mind, who want us to believe that might makes right. We adore the sacred Name of Jesus because, and only because, in him crucified we find the ultimate revelation: the possibility given to this world to heal from the honour-shame syndrome by which we are still afflicted, that consists of people boasting of their own glory and trampling upon others in the process. God always chooses to be on the side of the dispossed. God has shown as much to us, once and for all, by siding with the loser, the humiliated par excellence, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.