Today is the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; our church is dedicated not to a saint or saints but to the cross on which Jesus died. When I walk down the hill past the football ground I can see visible above the houses the cross of our church. It is a clear statement of who is here – we, the Christians, are here. God has his temple here, among the folk of Marsh Farm.
To me that cross is a symbol of hope. Think about the places where crosses are visible. Nearly every church places them at their highest point, usually atop church spires. That’s the place where, symbolically speaking, earth and heaven meet. The cross connects us to God. The other place where crosses are visible, often in great number, are cemeteries. They are markers of death, the places of rest for those who have died. “You are from dust and to dust you shall return.” The cross on a grave indicates a journey’s end, but also a new beginning. Crosses point to heaven, and so become symbols of life after death.
Crosses turn up in other places too. In jewellery, for instance. I wear a small silver cross close to my heart. I never take it off except when I am in New Zealand, and about to enter the thermal pools in Tokaanu or Rotorua – once I forgot to do so, and when I emerged from the naturally heated waters, the cross was black, a result of the chemical reaction between the silver and the sulphuric water. By the way, my family motto is Nil Nihi Cruce – “nothing except by way of the Cross.” Wearing the cross is a way of saying, “I identify with a crucified God.” That is because when Jesus was crucified he was identifying with us. As St Athanasius puts it, “The Word himself assumed a body so that he could offer a sacrifice for bodies like his own.”
This is not obvious to everyone. Back in the 1960s a book was published entitled The God I Want. It was a collection of essays by various public figures explaining the kind of God they could cope with, the one they could bring themselves to believe in. None of them said they wanted a crucified God: that made no sense whatsoever. Yet the crucifixion of Jesus is at the heart of the story that God has written for us. It is the truly shocking part of the story, that an innocent man should be put to death by crucifixion. It embodies man’s inhumanity to man. The cross screams at us: look how you treat one another! Look how you treat God! The Cross tells us all we need to know about the dark side of human nature.
And God is on the cross. That means you can’t put God anywhere else. You can’t put God on a cloud and carry on torturing and killing others, because God is on the cross. You can’t live lives of outward piety while showing malice to your neighbours because God is on the cross. You can’t separate your life into compartments marked “sacred” and “other” unless you are prepared to turn away from the cross. But that would be futile, because every unkind word, every cruel deed can be seen on the cross. The cross is, after all, human shaped. It fits us. It’s our story, our invention, even. The cross is a mirror in which we see reflected back ourselves on the cross and those we have nailed there through our own lack of love. If you want the unvarnished truth about yourself and the world, there is no better place to see it than on the cross.
Now I want to talk about one cross in particular. I’ve counted seven crosses in this church and in the hall and they are all different. The largest and the most striking is the one behind me. Whereas the other crosses in the church are solid, this one is made of glass. It lets the light through – it is even beautiful, which is an odd thing to say about an instrument of death. The light and colour show how a cross can be transformed. This is an artwork with a devotional function. The colour we see is mainly red, the colour of blood, which gives us life; it also symbolises death, as when it drains from us.
Life and death, death and life. These are the themes of the cross. We can imagine the light streaming through the cross here as being like new life, new blood, pouring into the church, washing away our sins. God fills the church with his new life and it is the resurrection life.
So that means the cross is transitional. Jesus went from death to life via the cross. He didn’t stay there, and neither shall we. The cross is transformational: God took the worst that human beings could offer and turned it into pure gold. The drabness of the world, polluted by sin, can be transformed into the radiance of God’s glory, through the power of his Holy Spirit and in and through the lives of his faithful people.
Finally, the cross connects us to God. Through the cross, your life and God’s are inter-connected. Through the cross this church and the world are inter-connected. And God needs places like the Church of the Holy Cross. He needs witnesses to the good news, which is that Jesus, who died on the cross, rose to eternal life. And where he has gone, we shall follow.
The cross stands high above the community of Marsh Farm. People of faith, people of goodwill, take up your cross and be the sons and daughters of God alive and responsive to the needs of our spiritually impoverished community. Be the beacon of hope and the light of God’s love to others. Lift high the cross. Let it be your symbol.
Father David Beresford