On this Palm Sunday, with hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, we begin a sacred pilgrimage called Holy Week. In liturgy after liturgy, as pilgrims we will sing, pray, chant, meditate and remember the story of Jesus’ passion. We will again walk with Jesus along the way which revealed his true passion—his dedicated desire to please God. A passion which brought him great suffering and the cross. We will watch with him in Gethsemane as he agonizes to overcome his fear of death. Jesus’ fear of dying was very real. But he also struggles with question of his death as a futile event. “Is God trustworthy?” was the real question. We must remember that scripture often refers to the resurrection by saying, “Jesus, whom God has raised from the dead.” [e.g. Romans 4:24, I Corinthians 15:15]. The power of his resurrection was not in Jesus’ hands but, as it is for us, it was in the hands of God and required faith on his part. Thus, his agony in Gethsemane. And from Gethsemane we follow him from the Halls of Judgment to the hill of Golgotha, for the destination of this pilgrimage is the Cross—its shame and suffering, its love and forgiveness.
Our Holy Week pilgrimage is an intimate journey of faith and utter devotion. A journey of faith at which end we will ask one another, in the words of that familiar Negro Spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” And as pilgrims of Holy Week we will answer, “Yes!” For, you see, the miracle of this week is that somehow time collapses. Pilgrims find themselves spiritually and emotionally transported to the experiences of Christ’s passion and cross. I don’t know about you, but “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
I believe, if our pilgrimage is faithful we will not only tremble because of the Cross of Christ, but also because Christ calls us to our own cross. For the way of Christ’s Passion transcends the piety of Holy Week and calls us beyond this week’s “pilgrimship” but to daily discipleship. Jesus said, “If anyone would be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23] If we would follow Christ to his cross this week we must remember that the end of our pilgrimage is to strengthen our discipleship, for we too have a cross.
Now, I am aware that now-a-days theologies of the cross are very suspect in many church circles. And in today’s secular world a cross is a metaphor for a personal burden or it is a vogue piece of jewelry which invites offense if it is seen implying any personal religion. Father Ed Putnam, Rector of Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, near Detroit, tells the story of making a hospital call in the city. He said, when he got on the elevator there was a man, a rather large man in sunglass with tattoos. He noticed that the man was wearing one of the largest and most ornate crosses he had ever seen. He was impressed and said to the man, that’s some cross you’re wearing. The man replied, in a rather irritated tone, “This ain’t no religious cross, Padre. My woman gave me this cross.” Perhaps a good question for us to ask ourselves this morning is: “From where have we got our crosses?” For many today, having a cross is a purely secular fact; a description of a socially imposed burden:
I am black and that is my cross in a racist society.
I am female and that is my cross in a patriarchal and sexist society.
I am gay and this is my cross in a homophobic world.
I am disabled and this is my cross in an insensitive differently-abled society.
These and other like senses of oppression are the daily realities many experience and thus, understand to be “their cross.” Some bear these socially imposed crosses with quiet anger or self loathing and others express it with the boldness of social and political aggression.
There are also some who would say their cross is privilege: such as economic or class or gender privilege. For example, we all remember a decade or so ago the phenomena of the “Angry White Male.” The cross of privilege is often perceived as being assigned guilt by association for certain historic ills and inequities of a society. Such persons most often perceive their cross as defending against a world that wants them sacrificed upon the cross of guilt and responsibility.
But you and I are aware that there are much more tragic crosses in our world, crosses often assigned by culture and socio-political history. Even as we speak, war rages in Yugoslavia between Serbian Christians and Muslim Albanians. A frustrated NATO is trying to contain violence with violence, knowing that there can be serious implications for all the Balkans and potentially all of Europe. Politically, it is an extremely complicated situation and in this decade the cloak of villainous aggression, such as ethnic cleansing, has been worn by both sides. But what is less complicated is the “cross of cultural grief” for a war and a sacred ground (Kosovo is to Serbs what Jerusalem is to Jews) lost by Christian Serbs to Muslims over 600 years ago. In the fourteenth century the Muslims who defeated them were Turks not Albanians.
Many scholarly observers of the region and its history believe that this “cross of cultural grief” has been nurtured and passed on generation after generation through glory lore, religion, and rhetoric. It is further believed that this has contributed to the vulnerability of Serbia to President Solbodan Milosevic’s madness and his campaigns of horrendous human destruction. Yes, again and again, whether in the Sudan, Rwanda, Cambodia and other parts of the world, we see the devastating effects which result when the cross of “unavenged grief” is culturally conferred, generation after generation. For when children experience such horrendous atrocities as we see in Kosovo, fear coupled with a helpless sense of outrage insures that the bloody cross of unavenged grief is justified and passed on to another generation. And when nurtured by cultural lore and political rhetoric; and victims eventually become villains and villains become victims and the cycle goes on…. generation after generation. Without the intervention of grace the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel continue tragically true, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].
From a Christian perspective, all of these crosses, I have mentioned can be real in their potential for suffering, whether historical, social, political or cultural. Yet, in a Christian sense, they can be very like the cross worn by the tattooed man in the elevator. The personal crosses we claim maybe ornate with cultural lore and shaped as religious piety. The cross of our causes or agendas may be so large with historic fact and social reality as to command public notice. But, my brothers and sisters, “these ain’t no religious crosses”. These do not reflect the cross of Christ, nor that which he calls us to take up.
The cross of Christ was radical obedience to God. It was a passion to please God. For Jesus had to transcend the fear, anger and social dilemmas of his own socio-political circumstance to please God. We must remember that Jesus was not the fair-haired medieval Prince portrayed in great stained glass windows. Jesus was an ethically conscious and observant Jew, who was aware of his people’s historic oppression, and the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. We know from scripture that he could be defiant of both Roman and Jewish authority. But neither nationalism nor militant vengeance was the cross he choose.
We also know that Jesus actively confronted racial, gender and class prejudice in society and religion. Jesus touched the leper, interacted with the harlot and ate with sinners. But he did so not simply as an act of civil disobedience, but as a sign of God’s inclusive love. If we act for justice, it is to please God, not for retribution or avenging. For God’s ends are always towards healing, reconciliation and a just peace.
The cross of Christ was to bear witness to this Truth. A truth that does not ignore historic facts, or social realities, but transcends them. A truth that shows us, that even when factually justified hate, prejudice, vengeance and violence are evil. As Christians we must die to passions of anger, fear, hate or retribution if there is to be any hope for healing and peace in our lives and the world. For no matter how satisfying for the avenged cross of the moment, it is evil. It is an evil which ultimately destroys our souls and forever make us and our children spiritual prisoners to the same tragic and redemptionless crosses. For the end of these crosses are always death; there is no resurrection in such crosses, no Easter, no lasting Good News. But the Cross of Jesus was God’s ultimate witness that there is redemption when our greatest passion is to please God. To fulfill God’s will for healing, reconciliation and just peace.
I was privileged to be invited to Capital Hill this week when Archbishop Desmond Tutu officially presented copies of his Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report to members of Congress and the Library of Congress. The Archbishop, who for decades has preached and lived a truth of non-violent social change, said that what contributed most to a bloodless transition of Government in South Africa, was the witness of a Nelson Mandela. He said that President Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, stunned both his political allies and his enemies by transcending the justified bitterness of his suffering and the newly acquired power of his political position and with clear integrity of spirit, forgave his former jailer and his prosecutor and befriended the widow of South Africa’s most oppressive president. Archbishop Tutu said, “If South Africa has been transformed, if South Africa has a future it is because Nelson Mandela and thousands of victims and oppressors have chosen to be vulnerable to truth and reconciliation.”
This pleases God! Our avengement does not please God. For even justice without mercy becomes a form of vengeance ant thus, is evil. I know this is hard, but if there is any power in the saving cross of Jesus, it is that we can be saved from fear, vengeance, prejudice, anger and the like, and receive grace to take up the Christian cross, the cross which Jesus offers us and God expects of us. The evil which crucified Our Lord and subsequent bearers of this truth is still in the world. But it is the sacrifice of love’s truth which conquers its purpose and sets us free to believe. For, I believe that truth crushed to the ground, like a grain of wheat, will rise again. God is trustworthy! Therefore, whatever our circumstance, our cross is to please God, not ourselves.
And so as we walk this pilgrimage of Holy Week, as we approach the cross of Christ, may we each discover its uniqueness to who we are, to our particular reality. May we find the grace to embrace our share in the cross we share with Christ, the cross of God’s healing, reconciliation and peace. Remember, as Holy Week pilgrims and as daily disciples we are partners with God. Partners for the salvation of our homes, our communities, our nation and the world.
My mother used to sing this song and I continue to believe its truth:
Must Jesus bear the cross alone
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.