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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jesus and Constantine at the Cross-roads (Exaltation of the Cross)

Here I go again with the cross. Like it's important or something! It’s in all the gospels, it’s in all the letters, it keeps coming up on Sunday, we’re forever making the sign of the cross on ourselves and anything that moves (or doesn’t move). We make the cross with water and oil, thumbs and hands, we stamp it on our bread, embroider it on our clothes, carry it on Sunday, look at it over the altar, wear it around our neck. It’s everywhere. It's strange, too, like we would wear a gilded replica of a canister of cyanide around our neck, or wear a diamond noose brooch, or hang a picture of a firing squad over our living room couch.

Sunday, September 14, is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. And we have to stretch a little bit to see it as a fortunate play on words, because the feast celebrates the paschal mystery, yes, like all Sundays do, but it particularly celebrates the finding of the true cross by the emperor Constantine. You know the story: in his quest to become the sole regent of the Roman empire, Constantine, son of one of the tetrarchs, marched on Rome to conquer it. The night before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, happily, for the victor, the anniversary of his accession to the throne as well, Constantine claimed (says the biographer Eusebius in one of two versions of the story he tells, and there are others) to have had a dream in which he saw a sign in the sky which he interpreted to be the chi-rho (the Greek letters X and P, the first two letters of Xpistos, "anointed" or Christ, with the words below it, “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα”, often rendered in the Latin In hoc signo vinces, i.e., “in this sign you shall conquer.” Allegedly, Constantine had his forces paint the sign on their armor, and they won. And from the Crusades through (at least) the Second World War, the cross has been painted on weapons to guarantee the victory of the wearer. Thus do the innocent and guilty alike continue to perish by the cross. Eight years after the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s sainted mother, Helena, discovered the “true cross” of Christ in the Holy Land on September 14, 325. It is this discovery, and the cross’s veneration at the great shrines of Christianity in the east and west, that evolved into the feast we celebrate today.

There are a couple of things about which we might take heart here. Saint Helena was both a divorcee and a late convert (at 60) to Christianity. She’s the patron saint of archaeologists, by the way, even though there is evidence that it was not she who discovered the cross, but that she happened to be in the right place at the right time. Her son, the Emperor Constantine, in spite of all his bloodlust and ambition, and his deathbed baptism, is also a saint. How about that? What does that teach us? That sainthood is not about us, or what we do, or what we’re capable of, it’s about God’s love for us. Sinners today, take heed: you are the saints of tomorrow. That's what God does. (See today's gospel, John 3:16)

Fortunately for preachers and musicians, little of the imperial pomp and strategy of warlords has found its way into the liturgy of this feast, which, like Holy Thursday, begins with the Nos oportet antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection” (Gal. 6:14). The second reading, as it is on Good Friday, is the kenosis hymn from the letter to the Philippians.  Taken with the title of the feast of the “exaltation” of the cross, we have what amounts to an amplification of the normal Sunday irruption of the paschal mystery, what feels like a little Easter in September. (It’s actually rather that Easter is a “big Sunday,” but you get my point!) Again, we are called to remember the cross itself as a sign of victory; not of imperial victory through force, but of divine victory through kenosis, creation, agape.

This week, as we recall our pain and shock on 9/11/01, we'll be surely be seeing those iconic beams from the Twin Towers that loomed in the aftermath, and became a flashpoint for controversy in the succeeding years. While it became identified with the selflessness and heroism of the many first responders who lost their lives in rushing to help those trapped in the towers before the unspeakable denouement of the tragedy, and helped to console some of the families of the victims and the nation, those twin beams quickly became a symbol of division, claimed by adherents of American civil religion and a vocal Christian plurality. As such, it became not a symbol of forgiveness but of revenge, not of the community of all peoples but of American exceptionalism. Enemies of the American state became "evildoers" even as it became clear that torture and the brutal collateral damage of "shock and awe" were part of the strategy of those Americans who invoked God's name between flag and cross.

Somewhere along the line, it never occurred to us that "crusade" and "jihad" were the same dynamic. Just depends on what puts the "holy" in "holy war."

I'll never forget that amid all the tears, shock, and anger of that terrible weekend in 2001, every Christian church using the Common Lectionary, including every Catholic church in this country, heard the words from Matthew's gospel that we won't hear this year because of the feast day, the command to forgive "seventy-seven" times, followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant. If the cross that bore the weight of Jesus, the cross that showed that "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him," if that cross can transform war into peace, prejudice into solidarity, violence into tenderness and care, then finally it will be the exaltation of the cross, and the transformation of its meaning will be complete. In place of exceptionalism, kenosis. In place of destruction, creation. In place of revenge, agape. In this world, Lord. Please. Soon.

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: Glory in the Cross by Dan Schutte, of course, and we’ll sing the Easter verses, though it’s a tough call. He did a nice job on each set of verses he wrote for this song. He plays on the nos oportet text, and expands it so that we think about the whole mystery of God as we reflect on the Jesus and the cross. Last time this feast happened on a Sunday, I made a note to myself that it would have been fitting to have done a sprinkling rite, ritually and visually connecting the cross and baptism, reinforced with preaching. By a strange quirk of fate, I'm "preaching" (i.e., offering a reflection) this Sunday. My note from last time will become this time's reality. 
Psalm 138, "On the Day I Called," by Rory Cooney (OCP), with the antiphon "Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now."  Since this feast doesn’t always fall on a Sunday (the last time was 2003), we don’t have a setting of Psalm 78 that we use very much. Since Psalm 78 is about not forgetting the mercy of God, I substituted Psalm 138 which we used last month on one of the Sundays of Ordinary time.
Preparation Rite: Faithful Cross, by Tom Kendzia, text by Rory Cooney. This song is my meditation on the meaning of the cross, to Tom's music. More on the song in this SongStories post.
Communion: May We Be One, music by Gary Daigle, words by Rory Cooney. Specifically, I chose this because of the words of the refrain which paraphrase one of the statements in the "mystery of faith," from 1 Cor. 10. "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus..." 
Recessional: I originally decided to use Jesus Christ Is Risen Today for the closing song Sunday. Is this weird? I just thought, well, "exaltation of the cross." What says it better than this venerable Easter hymn that proclaims the victory of life over the gallows, where "the pains that he endured/Our salvation have procured." I used to like "Lift High the Cross," but there's just so much militaristic imagery in it, though the tune is uplifting and bold. Honestly, I've tried it at St. Anne's in the past, and people just never seemed to warm to it. Instead, after consulting with the choir, we opted to sing Jerusalem, My Destiny. People will really sing that, too, and it won't feel seasonally awkward. I'm sure I'm just a wuss.