|14 September 2008 Holy Cross
Phil 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17
A few years ago there was a great stushie about Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, which majored on the horror of the Cross, the crucifixion itself and the anguish and pain of it all. I have to confess I deliberately didn’t go to see it. Partly because I haven’t forgiven Mel Gibson for “Braveheart”, but more seriously because his approach seemed both way too much and not remotely enough.
I say “too much” because showing us all that horror down to every gory detail misses the point, and because the meaning of the Cross in fact transcends all that – it belongs to everyone. If the Cross is only about the three hour anguish of the Man of Galilee, then frankly in the scales of human suffering – in a week where there was a service of remembrance for all the soldiers who served in Northern Ireland (bringing back memories of all those terrible bombings and killings and people left scarred for life), and 9/11 again commemorated just this week, and on and on – just add to the list for yourself, well how much can we say about three hours?
I once saw the Mum of a boy struggling with leukemia interviewed between the hymns on Songs of Praise and she just told it like it was and said, “Don’t talk to me about the Cross, I’ve been watching my son suffer for years.” So being overfocused on those three hours both insults people’s pain and it sells them desperately short.
Because the fact is, and it is the folly of the Cross (as Paul calls it) that for centuries people have claimed the Cross and clung to it as a sign of hope, an absurd contradiction right at the very heart of whatever might be happening for them. There’s a famous Passion scene in Germany, a painting called the Eisenheim altarpiece, it’s by Grunewald and it does depict a broken, crucified Christ, in all its horror with the flesh literally hanging off. It stood originally at the end of a long room, a ward if you like, in a hospice for lepers, and the idea was that the sufferers would see this painting and know – not so much that Jesus had suffered with them once long ago – but that all suffering is known to God and he shares in everything that happens to us.
But this was a painting which could be reversed, and what the lepers could contemplate on the other side was a Risen Christ, a glorified, beautiful human being, perfected and whole – the way that God saw them already, no matter how the world might see them. So the Cross pointed away from itself, away from present anguish to the Christian hope. For God so loved the world…
And loves the world so much that he can even take our anger. Christopher Nolan, the Irish author who lives with cerebral palsy, describes a moment where the young disabled boy, Joseph, through who he tells his own life story, has a moment of terrible despair and he rails against God in the crucified Christ. A friend has taken him into Church. “What,” said Matthew, “Do you want to see the crucifix, Joseph?” He wheeled him over and there hanging up on the wall was a lifesize Christ crucified to a huge black cross. His pallid limp body sagged windswept and dead. Crowned with thorns, his grey face was streaked by caked blood, his wonderful eyes were turned vacantly upwards, his head fell backwards and his veins were taut in his throat. But Joseph was not seeing the sadness of the spectacle that day, his boy’s heart was broken and he knew who to blame. The bright angry eyes of the rebellious boy looked up at the great crucifix and swinging his left arm in a grand arc he made the two-finger sign at the dead Christ. He told God what he thought of him. He was furious still.
For Joseph this self-assertion before God is part of his spiritual journey, part of his growing up in faith, as it needs to be for all of us. Joseph loves the God he sometimes hates and that’s ok, and in the Eucharist he meets the crucified God in a special way, just as he is. One of Joseph’s problems is opening his mouth to receive the host when his uncontrolled reflexes keep his jaws jammed shut. “Once, when Joseph was in difficulty, the priest came up with a bold idea of his own – Hi Joseph, what were you doing in the Church yesterday? Were you riflin’ the poor box? Joseph was so surprised by the accusation that his mouth fell open in astonishment. The priest immediately returned to prayer as he placed communion on the boy’s tongue. Such were Fr Flynn’s schemes, such his empathy that the boy became more and more relaxed over the years.
And so you see Joseph, no matter all the challenges he faces relaxing more and more into who he is and who he is with God. Nolan writes: “Communion served to join the silent boy with silent God, and into his masked ear Joseph poured his mental whisperings, begging blessings to be showered on his faithful friends.”
The crucified Jesus reveals to us, the silent God who hears our cries, who stands beside us inviting us to let go into a great fathomless love: Into thy hands, I commit my spirit. Paul writes to the Colossians in a phrase of almost startling boldness that we “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”, so whatever the mystery of the Cross is about, I’m part of it and so are you – and the sufferings of the whole world. So that when we offer the bread and the wine to God at the altar, that’s what we’re offering – merged into the bread, mixed into the wine – everything you are, and everything you’re going through and the anguish and hope and wonder and joy of the whole world. But like that Cross held before the eyes of the lepers, we see beyond it to hope.
Because the deepest meaning of the Cross is: the Risen Jesus for whom the Cross becomes a royal throne – and the one phrase a Christian needs to know by heart: God so loved the world. Amen.