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Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Sign of The Cross


The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

Choral Matins


Do you have a memory of a film that profoundly affected you?  I have memories of a variety of films with powerful moments, some moments almost too much to watch, but I have a particular memory, now more than 60 years old – it was The Ten Commandments and that moment when the wandering Moses encounters the burning bush and is told, “Take your sandals from off your feet, for the ground on which you stand is holy ground.”  That is the moment when Moses hears God’s voice and receives his call.  I remember that moment and the frisson of awe that shook me as a very susceptible nine-year-old; that thought of ‘The Holy’.

Moses and the burning bush
In the scriptures, that is the moment where the purpose of God is revealed and promised, God will deliver his people from oppression.  And so begins the great mission of Moses, accompanied by all the turmoil, the blood sweat and tears, that marked the Exodus.  In the course of this mission, Moses is transformed, his life is no longer his own, and God’s purpose is accomplished.

It is no accident that in the New Testament Jesus is seen as the second Moses; he is charged with the redemption and deliverance of Israel and the World.  So, too, in the gospel reading this morning, when Jesus discloses what the cross means for him and for us, it is made clear that the cross is not an abstract principle but the agonising precondition of following Christ.  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In these words Our Lord outlines in summary form a whole way of life.  The denial of self is a clear renunciation of wilfulness, of having our own way, of indulging our preferences for the soft option; this is a way of being that is summarised by the cross; and embedded here is a life-changing and soul shaping process of transformation.  This is at the heart of our calling, the cross changes us and shapes us.  Paul explains this when he writes: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

In the Episcopal Prayer book, the office for Morning Prayer,  the Collect for Friday is explicit:

A Collect for Fridays
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I remember being prepared for confirmation by the university chaplain at Ramsey House, the Anglican Centre in Victoria University, when I was a young student.  The Chaplain was in the Catholic tradition of our church and had been trained at Mirfield, in The Community of the Resurrection.  A little of that rubbed off on me: I was taught to make the sign of the cross.  It is not about lugging the cross around, but was always about taking the cross inwards! An Eastern Orthodox has put it this way:

“The summation of the life of Jesus in the symbol and the sign of the cross is not meant so much as an act of "taking up" the cross, as it is of "taking the cross inside." The direction of the sign of the cross is inward, which suggests embracing and internalizing the life of Jesus. Nevertheless, this inward direction suggests that, starting with the historical events of the life of Jesus, we live these events here and now, appropriating them outside time and space, as we become one with the timeless Christ.” (Andreas Andropoulos)


I still remember how strange it felt for me, newly confirmed, to make the sign of the cross and how self-conscious I initially felt doing it. (This was something utterly alien to my family’s staunchly protestant tradition). ‘Taking Christ in; putting Christ on’ … these were quite conscious thoughts then; and now, I often deliberately recall them to remind myself.  

By chance I came across reference to a former 18-19th  century Episcopalian who converted to Rome and was taught to make the sign of the Cross while there.  She became the first American-born Saint, Elizabeth Anne Seton  (1774-1821) and she remembered the impression of making the sign of the cross for the first time.  She wrote: “I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me -- the sign of the cross of Christ on me! Deepest thoughts came with it of I know not what earnest desires to be closely united with Him who died on it. Oh, that last day when it is to be borne in triumph!

To bear the cross is to be vulnerable and we do not know where it may lead.  I am very struck by these word from Sophie Scholl, a German student who felt led to oppose Nazism.  She was a founder of the society known as The White Rose” and was captured for distributing anti-Nazi literature and trying to arouse Germans against Nazism.  Her words describe what I consider her way of the cross.

"The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest people who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

Source: Die Letzten Tage  (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) )

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