All Saints Benhilton

19th September 2004

The Holy Cross: A Crucial Analysis


Tuesday of the week just passed was Holy Cross Day. So it is about the many significances of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ that we shall be thinking this morning.

The meaning of the word significance is contained in the first four letters which spell the word SIGN, from which other words like ‘signal’ and ‘signature’ are also derived. But it is with ‘sign’ as a short word for ‘sign-post’ that we shall begin.

A sign-post does its job by pointing away from itself and towards something else, whether it be the way to Sutton, the fact that in that street parking is, or is not, permitted, or how to get out of a building in an emergency. The sign will do no good at all if it’s overgrown with creeper or if we ignore what it’s telling us. If, however, we put its message into practice then the likelihood is that we shall find we’ve done the right thing. Equally, if the Cross of Jesus is a sign, it’s not going to be the seeing of it which helps us but the fact that having seen it we choose to put into practice what it’s telling us.

And, of course, whilst it is broadly telling us all to ‘take up our Cross and follow Christ’ it’s not by any means giving the same detailed instructions to everyone: what it’s saying to a school-leaver, a parish priest, the mother of a family, a teacher or a social worker will differ in detail depending on their age, sex, experience, wealth and personality to name but five variables. So we should expect to find what the Cross is saying to us is sometimes rather different from what it is saying to our husband, brother, child or neighbour. In other words there is no single interpretation of its message which will last you and me for the rest of our lives – we have continually to be ‘updating’ and ‘upgrading’ what it’s saying to you and to me personally.

So it’s worthwhile examining several of these different messages. Even if some of them don’t speak directly to us right now, there may well come a time in our lives when a message suddenly becomes ‘relevant’ to our circumstances. So here are some of the messages which the sign of the Cross may send us either now or in the future.

If you take the Cross to pieces you find it’s made of wood & nails – the materials of carpentry. Is it just a coincidence, one wonders, that Jesus was a carpenter by profession, who had learnt the skills of his trade at the hand of St Joseph? In all probability he’d had to make crosses at Nazareth for the punishment of rebels and runaway slaves. This suggests that for some people at least, their job, or trade, or profession is the principal way through which God intends them to work for him. If so, then ‘taking up the Cross’ means ‘putting all we’ve got’ into developing the skills which it entails, regardless of any satisfaction or financial advantage that it may give us. Jesus probably got little satisfaction out of cross-making, especially if he knew some of the people who were soon going to hang on them; but an ill-made cross would only make matters worse for them.

Any structural engineer will tell you that two beams or girders put together in the shape of a cross become far stronger than they would be individually. When the tower of Wells Cathedral started subsiding shortly after it was built in the 14th century, the builders inserted two crossed arches between the pillars in the middle and no subsidence has never happened since. This reminds us of what Jesus meant when he said to St Paul ‘my strength is made perfect in weakness’. The Cross has throughout history enabled ordinary weak people with a strength that can only be described as ‘supernatural’.

The Cross, St Paul told the Corinthians, is a stumbling block (or scandal) to many people, and foolishness to many others. It shouldn’t therefore surprise us if from time to time there are whole generations or societies of people who shy away from the Christian faith or having anything to do with it. There will, of course, always be a minority, perhaps quite a substantial minority, who latch on to what the Cross is all about and discover that it’s God’s power and wisdom, and the means by which we are saved. But it would be tragic if we ourselves chose to abandon the way of salvation for no better reason than that many other people are failing to follow it.

Coming back to the cross-roads and the signpost. Every cross-roads involves making a decision about which way to turn – and the Cross of Christ is no exception to this. The decision to become a follower of Christ is, of course, the most fundamental one, but if we decide to do so, that decision will be followed by a whole multitude of other decisions which will take us either nearer, or further away from him. Living as we do at a time when the choices available to us in a whole number of areas are so many, it’s hardly surprising if people are cautious about committing themselves to serve something, (or rather Someone) for the remainder of their lives. But that’s the only sort of commitment which he offers us – though it carries with it the promise that his service will make us perfectly free.

The Cross resembles a plus-sign. Now in view of what has just been said, and remembering what the way of the Cross entailed for our Lord, most people would think that a minus sign would be more appropriate. If that’s your problem it’s worthwhile remembering that the most rewarding experiences in life necessarily involve us in being willing to ‘lose’ something, at least for the time being, in order to gain something of even greater value. Growing up, growing old both involve losing something; getting married, becoming a parent, likewise. Some of these things present us with a choice whereas others do not. However even if we choose to remain single, the likelihood is that God will use that to enhance our way of serving him.

Well, those are just some ways of looking at the Cross, and none of them is the only, or the ‘right’ way. If one of them fails to resonate now be prepared for it to do so presently. Perhaps the one and only significance of the Cross which applies to everyone, everywhere and always, is that it looks like nothing so much as a capital ‘I’ which has been crossed out!

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