People flock to Sedona, Arizona from all over the world to watch the sun rise, and set, and to see its reflection off the region's famed red rocks. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is built high into the side of a mountain and is easily identifiable by its most prominent feature—a giant, narrow stone cross that seems to support its foundation.
The rest of the façade is glass, giving the pilgrim who enters the chapel a spectacular view of the surrounding red-rock hills and valleys. The height and breadth of the cross that looks over the valley also dominates the interior of the chapel. Until the end of the 1980s, coming in to the cool and dim interior from the intense, blinding sun of the Arizona desert, a pilgrim's eyes were at once and almost uncontrollably drawn to that cross. The size of the cross and the incredible beauty visible through the windows would certainly have been enough to touch one's soul; but on the cross was a most astonishing representation of the body of the crucified Jesus.
The corpus was made of blackened metal, twisted and jagged and severe. It was very a modern interpretation and there were no discernible features. It was very disturbing, very hard to look at, and yet powerfully compelling. This mangled, emptied Jesus held your gaze and forced you to contemplate the consequence of evil.
On Monday I came to the church to find an appropriate crucifix to use at today’s Good Friday liturgy as we are asked in some way to venerate the cross. My search took me to the parish office where I knew there were several. On a shelf in the back of the office I found just what I needed. But I also found quite a surprise. Its base was a small aumbry and the little door opened to reveal something very interesting—a handwritten note that read: “This Sacristy Cross is given to the glory of God, by the Rev. R.D. Hatch, a friend of St. Andrew’s, in memory of his sister Clara B. Hatch, an active missionary fir seventy years. He brought it from the Passion Play of 191111, and it was carved by the players.”
The Passion Play has been offered by the villagers of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany since 1634. It is done on an open-air stage every ten years. Now here’s the significance for us: it was first created during the Black Death as a pledge of the villagers in that town asking God that no more people in Oberammergau would die. For the first time since the seventeenth century it has been cancelled this year because of COVID19. So this particular cross, nestled away at St. Andrew’s, really speaks to us today.
The cross and all that led up to it is what we're asked to look at today. Judas betrays, Peter denies, Pilate gives in to pressure, Jesus suffers condemnation and torture, John and the women bear witness. We know this story well and we know the characters. Perhaps we know it too well.
We might prefer this story to describe an event that happened two thousand years ago and not become a part of who we are today. It is certainly easier to hear it that way. But if we're going to take it seriously, we have to consider what it's saying to us.
In the tradition in which I grew up and as part of the service I led for twenty-six years at St. Paul’s, Norwalk, the congregation is invited to come forward and venerate the cross by kissing or even just touching the feet of the image of Jesus. There is a scene from an old black-and-white movie that relates the importance of feet to the meaning of the cross. At first, all you see on the screen are feet—old feet, middle aged feet, children’s feet—feet caked with mud and marked by oozing sores from a long forced march.
There are other feet in the scene—the barefoot feet of people standing on the sidelines, as if they are watching the spectacle of this pitiful parade passing before them. For several minutes all you see on the screen are feet. Pounding rain adds to the misery of the scene and the whole image is as stark and emotionally charged as only a glum black-and-white film can be.
In a few minutes the, scene changes and the identity of these people is revealed. They are five Franciscan friars and 20 other men, women, and children. It is their feet we see struggling through the mud and rain. They are carrying crossbeams—much too heavy for an adult to carry for several miles, let alone a child. They are being force-marched as an example to the people who watch along the sidelines of the Japanese countryside. They are on their way to a field where they will all be crucified. The year is 1597 and they will be among the first people martyred in Japan for refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s somehow a less disturbing phenomenon when we keep the cross, and all it symbolizes, way, way in the past—on a hill in first century Jerusalem. It’s not so easy to look at it when we are forced to understand it as a part any other time and place—most of all our twenty-first century life. But the Passion Story is no fairy tale. Nor is it a thing of the past. The cross is still raised. God’s daughters and sons are still nailed to it. Christ’s blood is still shed in any number of tragic situations everyday. Jesus continues to die in the plight of our sisters and brothers all over the world. We know that is true because he told us: “Whatever is done to the least of my brethren is done to me.”
In the late 1980's a controversy began around the image of Jesus on that cross in the Arizona desert—the twisted and jagged Jesus. Some were offended because it was so powerful, so visceral that you could not ignore it. There is an ugliness to the effects of evil that we just may not want to face, so that it's hard to stay and watch and pray. They took that disfigured, disturbing Jesus down. They took Jesus off that cross, cleaned it, patched the holes in the cross where nails had supported his body. Visitors eyes are no longer drawn to that unthinkable gift of love.
This week I read a reflection by a priest who recalled a Good Friday service at her home church when she was a teenager. When the cross was brought into the church and placed in its stand, the priest invited everyone to gather around it and write their names on small slips of paper. He then brought out a hammer and nails, and one by one, they each nailed their own name to the cross. It was a powerful, a reminder that Jesus hung there for each one of us. But more than that, it is a reminder that each of us carries the cross and, from time to time, may be asked to climb on to it.
Peter Gomes, who was a professor at Harvard Divinity School, writes that “Jesus did not die in order to spare us the indignities of the wounded creation. He died that we might see those wounds as our own.” That we might see those wounds as our own…