The Paradox of the Cross

By Porter C. Taylor

The liturgical year presents the Church with many opportunities to reflect upon Christ’s work on the cross. On Good Friday we are invited to meditate upon the agony and pain, the love and obedience, the silence and awe of His crucifixion. One typically leaves the Good Friday liturgy full of sorrow and torment mixed with thanksgiving for God’s unrelenting love. We then return to the cross, in a way, on Easter as we come to flower the cross with our own blooms and blossoms, celebrating that what was intended for evil by man was ultimately used for good by God for the life of the whole world.

The cross is everywhere around us, and yet I wonder if we, both culturally and as a church, have become blind to its meaning and power. Is it possible that we have simultaneously become both desensitized to the brutality of Jesus’s execution and overly personalized/privatized the crucifixion (i.e. saying “Christ died for me”) that we have neglected the redeeming work accomplished on Calvary? We throw around the idea of “taking up our cross” and following Jesus as though we have forgotten what that meant for Him, and for His disciples, and ultimately for us. As with many things in our faith, the cross presents us with a paradox, for it is at once both a symbol of death and life, of agony and glory, of defeat and victory. The Feast of the Holy Cross is therefore an opportunity to think, reflect, and celebrate this paradox.

The Collect provides us with the guidance we need to read our lessons and understand the meaning of the Feast: “whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow Him.” Here we find both the universal and the particular co-mingling in the same sentence; Jesus is drawing the whole world to Himself, and we are called to take up our cross and follow Him. There is a connection here between the once and for all nature of Jesus’ passion and our invitation to live as a cross-shaped people.

Lifted High

The Bible is teeming with references to the Son of Man being lifted high for all to see. Our lessons for this Feast include Isaiah 45 and John 12 as examples of this, but we might also remember Moses raising the bronze snake in the Exodus story and then Jesus echoing this story when he said that he must be lifted up in the same manner. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” John’s gospel is richly imbibed with a theme we might summarize as “God is glorified in Christ crucified” and these passages point to the power Jesus’ crucifixion holds for all who believe.

As Paul reminds us in his epistle to the church in Philippi, Jesus went to the cross willingly, obediently, and faithfully. He did not end up on the cross as some sort of accident or coincidence; He was neither outsmarted by the religious leaders of the day nor caught while trying to escape. Jesus set His gaze like flint toward Jerusalem and then journeyed directly to the cross for the sins and life of the whole world. The cross is both the reminder of humanity’s wayward desire to life apart from God and the fullest expression of God’s self-emptying love for His creation. In order to view the cross as a symbol of discipleship, we must first see the cross as the place where our Savior willingly died that all might know God; that is, we cannot have an empty and clean cross without first embracing the cross with Jesus dying upon it.

Taking Up Your Cross

The invitation to take up your cross is not cheap. Culturally we have become so flippant with our references that it is common to equate a personal disagreement or verbal attack with the crucifixion. And yet, the apostles carried their crosses unto death; the martyrs and saints of the last 2000 years have done the same. To take up our cross is to similarly set our gaze like flint toward whatever your horizon the Lord is calling us and to journey there intentionally and with God’s love, compassion, mercy, grace, and mission overflowing from our hearts. As they say in AA meetings, “It’s simple, but it isn’t easy.”

A Christian who has been shaped by the cross is a person ready to lift that cross even higher that others might see Jesus and turn to him, as well. The cross we are called to bear is not an inconvenience or annoyance to which we can say, “We all have our crosses to bear…” as though putting a theological bow on it will somehow make it more palatable. The cross we are called to bear is the cross of Christ, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. Think about Simon the Cyrene who carried the cross for Jesus when He could no longer do so himself: Simon had to follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha with the cross on his back…how far are we willing to carry the cross?

Challenge

Here at COTA we have been blessed by the beautiful processional cross created for us by our own Tom McDonald. We bow when the cross processes past us as the verger carries it into the nave and again out into the world. If you are intentionally attentive, then you will notice the handle on the cross changes based on the liturgical season, a visible symbol of the tenor and theme at hand: penance, glory, ordinary time, etc. Allow yourself to be drawn in by the colors as you meditate upon Christ’s work. Allow yourself to be arrested by the image of Christ upon the cross, forcing yourself to gaze upon Him a second longer than you would normally do. Let the Feast of the Holy Cross be both a reminder of Jesus’ passion and of your invitation to take up the cross and follow Jesus daily, wherever He might lead you.

This was originally written for and published by our parish blog – Church of the Apostles, Kansas City – where I serve as Assisting Priest and Theologian in Residence. You can read it here.

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