In the name of God, Father, Son, and life-giving Holy Spirit, Amen
Clare and I are glad to be able to share in this homily today.
Alan : The Feast of the Holy Cross, known as Holy Cross Day, which we have brought forward for our service from September 14, recalls the finding of the true cross by Saint Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, and the dedication of churches built in the site of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Calvary. It is therefore a feast shared between churches of East and West, though not always on the same days.
There is also a clear link to the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, held 40 days earlier. It was on the holy mountain that the disciples saw Christ in glory, a glory which St. John the Evangelist tells us was to be revealed on the Cross, where Christ’s glory is shown to us.
This link is shown wonderfully in the Transfiguration mosaic from the church of St. Apollinaris in Classe, Ravenna, shown on our cover sheet for this service. In this cross which is part of the larger Transfiguration mosaic, we find at its centre the face of Christ. It is as if Christ challenges us from the Cross to be his disciples, in communion with those who first followed him and heard his message.
As we have noted, the feast of the Holy Cross marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. The cross which had been recovered by St. Helena was brought outside the church so that the clergy and faithful could pray before the True Cross, and all could come forward to venerate it.
One of the literary treasures that I used to draw on when I lived in Jerusalem – almost as a guide book to help explore the different holy sites in the city and the Land – was a narrative describing the journey of pilgrimage made to the Holy Land by a Spanish nun called Egeria in the latter part of the 4th century. It is a treasure store which gives considerable insight into the places venerated by and the customs practised by the Christian Church during that period. At points it is very detailed. Egeria gives us information about all the services held in and around the city during Holy Week. This is what happened on Good Friday when the fragments of the Cross were publicly venerated by the Christian community actually in the church of the Holy Sepulchre itself:
Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it.
Does this give a new dimension to Julia’s forthcoming ordination as deacon this weekend to read of this role of the deacons – holding firmly on to the cross – to keep it safe in this way?
Alan : the devotion to relics of the Cross moves on, and becomes more of a spiritual danger to the life of the Church than a blessing, as relics of the Cross or of the saints increased in financial value and the finding of relics becomes associated with the needs of Cathedrals or monasteries to attract pilgrims. When St. Francis of Assisi was dying, he was well aware that his body would be contended over by different groups, eager for relics of one who was certain to be beatified.
And so it is easy enough to understand the reaction of the Reformers, already prefaced by Erasmus’s criticisms of popular devotion. This affected the Church of England during the reign of Edward VI and then the reigns of Elizabeth and her successors, and there was a further terrible round of destruction during the Commonwealth. Shrines were smashed and relics dispersed. For centuries it became impossible to display a crucifix, and even a plain cross was not acceptable on the holy table in some dioceses. And for the Puritans, both those who for a time remained within the established church and those who seceded, a three dimensional image of the Cross had no place in public worship. But then we come to something rather wonderful, that the contemplation of the Cross in popular devotion continued, but as an inner contemplation of the heart. And so we have the hymn of Isaac Watts, Independent Minister in Southampton, “ When I survey the wondrous cross” ; the cross that Watts surveyed was certainly not a physical one in his chapel, but one that he dwelt on in his mind.
But to turn aside from that for a moment, I also recall the way I which the cross has been used in Christian history as a rallying symbol for aggression and conquest, as in the Crusades, which has resulted in the cross being a point of division and potential hostility between Christians and Muslims ever since. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who ministered in the Middle East, used to ask : “Who can be combative with the cross of Christ ! ?”
Well unfortunately the Christian militia of Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war had an answer to that.
Now back to Clare…
Earlier I mentioned the practice of the veneration of the Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday which had perhaps its inadvertently amusing side. If I am brutally honest I always find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself quite an ambiguous building, partly because of the way that over the centuries it has been so squabbled over by the different Christian churches that have claimed ownership to it or rights within it. Such squabbles have on occasion themselves degenerated into violence. Yet ironically there is an appropriateness to these diasgreements because if we go back to the original reason for Jesus’ crucifixion from the perspective of human history there is a close relationship between the killing of Jesus and the desire for possession and control of a Holy place, even if it was initially the Temple in Jerusalem rather than the Holy Place. So this Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so competitively loved, has become a visual and physical symbol of such competitiveness, the danger in fact of religiously motivated violence.
In truth my own favourite spot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not any of what one might call the ‘central’ parts, the mound of Golgotha or the the aedicule that marks Christ’s tomb. It is actually these marks of crosses on the walls of the steps that lead down to the Chapel of St Helena. Appropriately perhaps to mark the chapel where the woman who found the cross is herself commemorated, these rough crosses in the walls have been carved by thousands of pilgrims over the centuries. Of course these days we disapprove of and do not allow such graffiti, even in a holy cause. But for me they mark the way that holy places and holy objects, even the cross are not exactly important in themselves. Their value derives partly from the way they have interfaced with the lives of Christians, both our Christian forbears and our fellow Christians in many parts of the world. So I cherish these rough crosses in this wall, because they draw together the Love by God for humanity without which the cross cannot be understood with the love for God expressed through the fidelity and longing of these pilgrims from the days when making a journey to Jerusalem was far more arduous and dangerous than it is today. The cross has become real by drawing together God’s gift and our response, and it is transfigured by this mutuality.
Alan : Fnally to return to Ravenna and the mosaic of the Cross with which we began,and to celebrate it with a poem :
At the centre of Ravenna’s Cross
the face of Christ addresses us,
calling us to our transfiguration;
The “ I “ at the centre of the cross
speaks to us without words
sees all, knows all;
the cross itself, redeemed
partner in our redemption
and through the One it bears,
anoints our faces
with uncreated light.