“He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” From the Book of the prophet Isaiah, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight, my brothers and sisters, our liturgy echoes across sixteen centuries. Around the year 380 A.D. a Spanish nun named Egeria made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Thankfully, the good sister left us a detailed account of her visit. Because of her we know a great deal about the life and worship of the Church in Jerusalem in the late fourth century. This is Sister Egeria’s description of devotions in the Holy City on Good Friday in the late fourth century:
“The wood of the Cross [is …] placed upon a table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop … holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people … come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. … And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross … first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through.”
The veneration of Christ’s Cross with a kiss is one of the oldest and most wide-spread devotions in the Christian Church. We share it with the communion of saints throughout all ages.
And yet there are millions of sincere Christians today who would be uncomfortable with our veneration of the Holy Cross tonight. Indeed, some people here now may question why we are about to kneel before a piece of wood and reverently kiss it. After all, God did command Moses on the Holy Mountain, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image […]. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Can we be sure that our special act of devotion to the Cross of Christ tonight is appropriate?
During the early Middle Ages some Christians known as the Iconoclasts, raised precisely this objection. They insisted that the Second Commandment forbade the use of images of Christ and the saints as aids to prayer and prohibited devotions such as the veneration of the Holy Cross. Eventually the Iconoclasts convinced some of the Byzantine emperors to begin the systematic destruction of sacred images and the “purification” of Christian worship. Suddenly Christians who maintained the traditional worship practices were persecuted terribly.
But soon a champion of the Catholic faith arose, St. John of Damascus. And St. John’s answer to the Iconoclasts was startling. Of course the Second Commandment forbids idolatry, he said. But we must never forget that the Incarnation and the saving work of Christ on the Cross have altered the world forever. The physical world has been sanctified to an unimaginable degree because God Himself became a part of it, living and dying as one of us. The Creator is separate from His creation, John insisted, but in the Incarnation God has also identified Himself with the created order. Therefore, after the coming of God the Son in the flesh the use of material things in our worship of Him is more than appropriate. It is demanded.
St. John’s words have not lost their power after 1300 years:
Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! … Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice-happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? What of the life bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel-book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter?...
You see, “materiality” and salvation are intimately linked. The Christian faith is not just about “ideas.” For, my brothers and sisters, the pagans have their mythology. Philosophers and scientist have their theories. But you and I, as the people of God, have the facts of history. Our faith relates entirely to the real world and the God who made. For the one true God, whom we worship, is not an abstraction. He is the Maker of all that is, visible and invisible. The Lamb of God, who gave Himself up for us on this terrible, yet “Good” Friday, is not a “redeemer myth” or “literary trope.” The flesh and blood man, Jesus of Nazareth—very God of very God come down from Heaven, saved us by the most mundane things imaginable: bone-studded leather whips, the spittle of Roman executioners, eight-inch long iron spikes, and a couple of rough-hewn pieces of wood. And from that despicable assemblage of material stuff, at one particular place and one particular time—outside the walls of a mid-sized town in a remote province at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon—our Lord Jesus Christ crushed the power of sin and death and gave birth to a new creation.
For that day at the Place of the Skull God Incarnate took upon Himself every sin committed by the human race--from that last dawn in Eden until the End of Days--as “He stretched out His arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.” All the suffering that sin has inflicted upon mankind since the Fall--every broken heart, every ache and pain, every tear shed at every graveside—our Lord Jesus offered all of them up in His own flesh as His perfect, atoning sacrifice to God the Father. Because Christ was lifted up on that rough-hewn Roman cross, there is no pain we can suffer that our God has not already shared and there is no trespass we may commit beyond the forgiveness of the One who knew no sin, yet became sin for us. And as those two unobtrusive pieces of Roman wood soaked in our Savior’s precious Blood, they became the Tree of Life for all those who have repented of their sin, placed their trust in Christ, and been buried with Him in the waters of baptism.
This is most certainly not Bulfinch’s Mythology. The handful of Christ’s disciples who watched their Master die on Golgotha knew that His suffering and death were material facts. That evening they pulled the spikes out of wood and tortured human Flesh. They washed the clotted blood from our Lord’s wounds, hurriedly wrapped His stiffening corpse in a shroud, and laid it on a stone slab in a borrowed tomb. None of this took place in the fantasy land of the pagan myths. There are golden apples, no flying horses, no nymphs and fairies. Just iron, wood, stone … and death. This all happened in the world of space and time that you and I inhabit. It happened in our world because the sin that separates us from God takes place here. The instruments of our redemption—whips and thorns, spikes and cross, blood and water flowing from a wounded side—were made of ordinary matter because you and I suffer and die in a world made of the very same “stuff”.
And that, my friends, is why we will kneel and reverence a wooden cross with a kiss tonight. We need to feel the materiality of our salvation. This simple ceremony is a reminder to us that our redemption is not just a fairy tale. It is a fact of history. It is solid. When you feel the cool wood of the cross touch your lips, remember that Jesus Christ is no mythological figure. He was and is at once both a Man like us—able to identify with us in all our trials and our joys--and the God who made the tree from which the wood you’re kissing came. As you bend to venerate the cross remember that our Lord Jesus bowed under the weight of His True Cross so that we can take up our own crosses and follow Him into His eternal and glorious Kingdom. May God give us grace never to forget “the wood of the Cross whereon hung the world’s Salvation.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.