That I should serve as the pastor of a church called, “Holy Cross” is to say the very least, ironic. You see, I have never ever thought of “the cross” you know “the” cross the one the church glorifies, I’ve never thought of “the” cross as particularly holy. Long before I ever dreamed of being a pastor, let alone a pastor of a church named “Holy Cross,” I couldn’t for the life of me understand why crosses ever became so popular. Personally, I’m not particularly fond of crosses! I would even go so far as to say that at one point in my life, I hated crosses. I cannot abide the glorification of an instrument of torture, execution, death. I could never understand why people so blithely wore crosses around their neck as jewelry. People would never dream of wearing an electric chair around their neck. I can’t for the life of me, imagine that any of Jesus’ followers would have ever considered wearing the symbol of Roman tyranny and persecution, torture and death around their necks.
Historians tell us that during Jesus’ lifetime, thousands of crude crosses would have lined the pathways and upon those crosses the rotting corpses of the victims of Roman executions would have served as a warning to the masses not to step out of line, not to engage in revolution. The early followers of the Way; the first Christians used the fish as the symbol of their faith. For a very long time, I used to wear this crude little necklace, with a fish on it. Made for me by a little girl who has since grown up to become a pastor herself. I wore that, rather than wear a cross around my neck.
And before I went to seminary, that little girl’s mother, she gave me a little bit more elaborate necklace to wear in place of a cross which included a few more fish. But I still insisted while at seminary that I wouldn’t wear a cross around my neck, even after I was ordained. But then for an ordination gift, my darling Carol had her son design this cross of fish for me. I must admit that it is difficult to see this particular cross as an instrument of torture. It didn’t look quite like this when I first received it. The circle behind the fish wasn’t there. Just a cross with the fish. But this cross is made of raw silver and raw silver is quite pliable. When I first began wearing this cross, all those hugs which came whenever we passed the peace…remember hugs…remember when we could pass the peace…well back then, those hugs would bend this fish cross until it fell apart. It was all bent out of shape, until eventually it fell apart. So, back to the designer it went, and our son came up with the idea of putting a circle behind the fish.
Today, as we venture deeper into the wilderness of Lent, this strange Lent when people continue to suffer the ravages of this unending pandemic and some experts are warning us about the very real possibility of a third wave caused by variants of the coronavirus, I don’t have much of an appetite for the words attributed to Jesus by the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call Mark. Listen to what Mark tells us. He puts these words into Jesus’ mouth, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross an follow me.” All I can say, is whoa, wait just a minute Jesus. Take up my cross and follow you? Wait a minute, I know where you’re going. You’re on your way to Jerusalem and I know exactly what’s going to happen when you get there. You are going to stir things up, get yourself into trouble, upset the powers that be and the next thing you know they are going to nail you to the cross and you are going to suffer and die. If I pick up my cross and follow Jesus, I’m going to end up right there with Jesus, hanging from my own cross, suffering and dying. And for what? What’s it all about Jesus? Why are you so hell-bent on getting yourself crucified and why do you want me to join you?
It happens to me every year. No matter how hard I try, the journey of Lent leads me right back to the cross. And just like Peter, I want to rebuke Jesus. I don’t want a suffering Messiah. I want a saviour who is triumphs without all the suffering. Or at the very least I want a Messiah who doesn’t run the risk of having his followers glorify the violence of the cross. Because from the moment that Jesus hung there on the cross, his followers have been trying to understand, why. And all too often they point to God and they say that the violence of the cross had to happen to satisfy God’s need for justice. They twist and turn things and before you know it, God is reduced to some grand executioner in the sky who demands a blood sacrifice. And then, they’re glorifying suffering as if suffering was somehow God’s will for us. And we all expected to forget that Jesus actually said that he came that we might have life and live it abundantly. And Christianity instead of encouraging people to live, encouraged the followers of Jesus to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus, in such a way as to suggest that suffering is somehow good for us. All too often, Christianity’s cross-eyed perspective has distorted the Good News that God is LOVE and we are left worshiping the cross instead of worshipping the ONE who came proclaiming a reign of LOVE which would see the end of institutionalized torture, violence and death.
So, today in the midst of this covid wilderness of Lent, when I long to wrap myself in the tender embrace of the people I miss, I look at this fish cross of mine and rather than feel bent out of shape by the absence of those embraces, I find myself inspired by the circle which provides the strength which holds these fish together. You see earlier this week, I was caught off guard by a line I read in a book about an earlier pandemic, in which the author, Matthew Fox insisted that: “The coronavirus emergency comes wrapped up inside the climate change emergency, for it is part and parcel of the encroaching of the human population into the habitats of animals.” [i] The line struck me and for the first time in this pandemic wilderness, I made a connection between the pandemic and the plight of Creation. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye I could see all those crosses lining the roadways, but instead of rotting corpses warning me to behave or else, I saw masks dangling, multicolored masks mocking me as they dangled in the wind. I suspect that first century followers of the Way, got used to all those crosses and all that rotting flesh. I’m sure that they learned to look away and go about their business, just as I have grown used to the endless lists of environmental crises which are torturing our planet.
I’m beginning to understand why the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Mark might have written his gospel the way he did. Reminding the first followers of the Way not to ignore what was going on all around them, exhorting them to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.
Like our ancestors of the faith, I too would rather look away and be about my business than actually look around to see the magnitude of the torture which is happening all around me. Yes, I can hear the Earth groaning in pain. Yes, I know our planet is in peril. From time to time, I weep for the creatures who will be no more. Yes, I know there isn’t much time left. But there are so very many crosses and I can’t bear to pick one of them up only to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where it all might end in death.
What are we supposed to do when faced with the enormous challenges of climate change, sustainability, and shifting populations fleeing the ravages of rising sea-levels, and, and, and…we could go on and on, and on, there are simply too many crosses to bear? What good will it do for me to pick up a cross? Let me just go about my business!
Then from the echoes of time, comes the voice of our ancestors: “Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YAHWEH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.” And as the masks continue to flap in the breezes generated in my mind’s eye, the sheer multitude of flapping masks causes me to wonder, which cross do I pick up? Which injustice do I champion? How much kindness can I muster? How many crosses can I bear?
As the temptation to hunker down and block out the long litany of crosses need carriers darkens my vision, I remember the circle which provides the strength for my cross of fish. And I remember the vast network of lovers of justice, providers of kindness and I begin to imagine that I too might have the strength to walk humbly with the LOVE which encircles us all, providing the strength we need. And from the sacred pages of the Talmud, I am reminded not to “be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.”
I don’t have to carry the whole world on my shoulders. I don’t have to solve the climate crises all by myself. In the words of the Talmud, I hear the LOVE which encircles us all plead: “Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Yes, we have all been confronted by such a lot this past year. And still our beloved Earth continues to groan. We can choose to hunker down and try to go back to business as usual. Or we can look at all those crosses which line our way, and we can pick up our cross. The one we are best suited to carry and encircled by the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being, we can be LOVE in the world. We don’t have to do it all.
Jesus came that we might have life and live it abundantly. Our calling is not to suffering. Our calling is to respond to suffering where we can, how we can, as best we can, as often as we can, and trust that the ONE who IS LOVE will continue to encircle us, providing the strength we need to be LOVE in the world.
So, today, I wear this cross to remind me not to be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, or the Earth’s groaning, or the tortures of injustice. But rather to encourage me to “do justly now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.” And this circle will assure me that, I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I free to abandon it.
MAY the LOVE which encircles us, strengthen us to take up our cross and follow the ONE who came that we might have life and live it abundantly. Let it be so dear ones. Let it be so. Amen.
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[i] “Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond” Matthew Fox; iUniverse Books; 2020, page xxiii