The Folly of the Cross
Lent III, 7 March 2021.
This painting, to be found in St. Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh, is particularly haunting. It shows a distraught woman, creeping into the back of the cathedral whilst a service is proceeding at the other end. The woes of the world are on her shoulders but the distance between her and any comfort seems an eternity away. And yet, she becomes aware of the presence of Christ by her side, standing with her in her agony.
The painting speaks to us on many levels but I share it with you this morning as it seems to fit into our context: a roadmap out of the pandemic and Lent, almost halfway through. Both destinations – the 21st June and even Easter – seem so far away, as do the problems which so often beset us and seem so acute in this particular Lent.
So where do we find Christ’s presence, who promises to be with us to the end of time and so powerfully expressed in this painting? From early times Christians have found the answer in the form of the cross but how does that work for us?
The Folly of the Cross.
When Jesus was young, a revolt took place around Jerusalem. Three prophets claimed to be The Messiah. The Romans dealt swiftly with the uprising, crucifying 2000 bandits who were strung up along the roads.
Jerusalem was a turbulent place, then as now, and crosses were common signs of torture. As we know, Jesus incurred the wrath of Romans, Jews and Greeks at the end of his short ministry. The cross on which he was impaled was a repulsive sign but so was his gospel. It made no intellectual sense to Greeks who sought wisdom. To the Jews it was a desecration: how could their Holy God commune with human kind and be killed on a cross? It was a scandal. So the power of the cross cannot be known purely through brains or debate or the threat of power but to this poor woman, the cross was revealed in her poverty at the back of a northern cathedral. She knew the pain of the crucified one but also His presence. As St. Paul says in our reading this morning (1Cor. 1.18 – 25) the presence of Christ is available to all who humbly search for his support, whatever their status, gender or creed.
There are many theories about how the cross saves us but none of them will make any sense without the resurrection. It is through suffering and death ‘in Christ’ that we will come to know the quality of life beyond, in him. Yes, the cross is a scandal to some, a sign of contradiction to others but for many, to own a cross or to gaze upon one is a powerful action of comfort and healing. It shows the simple truth that Christ is to be found with us at our lowest and most needy.
Shakespeare personified the power of the cross in the image of the fool, the character who through humour or by tough love point out the truth to those who are blind. Feste or Falstaff prefigure The Fool in King Lear who sees straight through the wicked daughters and comforts the old man in his distress.
Living the Cross
Christians believe that the cross shows the ultimate gift of God’s love, that a man – this man – lays down his life for us, his friends. And we are called to do the same, but how difficult it is!
A Sunday-School teacher once described the cross as an ‘I’ crossed out. This wisdom points to the humility required to live the cross in our own day. It doesn’t fit well with those chasing impressive goals. For some it will mean going the extra mile, kissing a frog, sticking with a challenging partner, taking the pain of an illness to the foot of the cross. We might think of Nelson Mandela as a role model here, having served 27 years in prison with no retaliation.
Hospital chaplains know the value of the Holding Cross for those who are undergoing acute pain. It is another way of identifying with the Christ who suffered for us all on the cross. As we consider today’s agenda of ‘levelling up’ in the light of the budget, the words of Gandhi are worth pondering: “Live more simply that others may simply live.”
Our target of Easter will come soon enough – and earlier than 21st June – but it will require us to accept with humility the restrictions placed upon us for the good of all. I am a slow learner in the school of unconditional love but the cross as a sign of self-denial is a fine teaching instrument for those who have eyes to see. Amen.