Elevation of the Cross, September 14, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
I sometimes wonder whether Christians have “domesticated” the cross. We of course put it on everything, including ourselves. It is probably the single most recognizable symbol in the world. And today, on this great feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we lift the cross high and show it not just to one another but to the world.
So I think it might be good if we took a moment and talked about this symbol of the Christian faith, this sigil that marks us as Christians.
In the Roman Empire that crucified Christ at the behest of the religious leaders of the Jews, crucifixion was not the standard method of execution. Many people were hung or beaten to death. And Roman citizens were given the “merciful” death of being beheaded, which was probably the quickest and most painless method of execution at the time.
Crucifixion, however, was generally reserved for slaves, pirates and enemies of the state. Roman citizens would never be crucified, unless they had done something particularly threatening to the Empire, such as high treason. For this reason, crucifixion was also one of the most public of forms of execution. It is true, of course, that some people were killed publicly in arenas with gladiators and wild beasts and so forth, but crucifixion was typically out in the streets, where everyone could see. This was appropriate for those who were considered enemies of the Empire, true outsiders.
And crucifixion was also one of the slowest and most painful ways of executing someone. It is painful to be nailed to a cross, of course, but the death is not usually caused by the wounds from the nails but rather by slow suffocation, as the legs gradually grow more and more tired and can no longer hold the chest up to take full breaths. Thus, as the person crucified gradually grew more exhausted from hanging in the sun, he could no longer push himself up to breathe, and he eventually gasped to death in exhaustion and suffocation.
Death by crucifixion was painful. It was humiliating. It underlined that the person being killed was publicly being proclaimed as outside of the society, so far that he had to be killed like this.
And this is the death by which the earthly life of the Son of God is ended. It is a dark irony that the most exalted One, the holiest of Holies, the King of Kings should be killed in this way. Even if anyone at the time, whether Jew or Gentile, could have stomached that God would become a man, or even believed that Jesus was, if not God, then somehow divine, they certainly would not have considered it appropriate that He could be killed like this. Crucifixion was a death for those so low in society as to be outside it entirely. Crucifixion was a way for the entire Empire to spit upon someone and blot him out of their consciousness.
This is why Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians in the passage appointed for this feast calls “the word of the cross” “foolishness to those who are perishing.” Those who do not believe in Who Jesus is and do not participate in His life find crucifixion to be “foolishness.” There is absolutely no way that anyone would want to be crucified, and there is absolutely no way that anyone could successfully do that to God or even to some kind of divine being. It’s just crazy. It’s foolishness.
But “to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” The cross is the “power of God” because it shows clearly Who God truly is: He’s not the “biggest person in the room.” He’s not a very big, very powerful being Who’s basically like we are, only bigger. He’s not an old man living up in the sky. God is uncreated. He is like nothing that exists in creation. He is not only from outside the Roman Empire or even from outside the Earth. He is from outside existence itself! He is the ultimate outsider, and, if you think of it, the only true outsider.
This is the God Who became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s not that a big being came down and pretended for a while to be a small being. It is that the One Who is beyond being itself took on our reality, our finiteness, our solidity and createdness while also retaining everything He had before the Incarnation.
And so, although those who perpetrated it did not intend it to be so, His death on the cross is a declaration to the world of His divinity, for the One Who was innocent and had never done anything against not just the Empire but against any man, the One Who was not only not a slave but the King of Kings, the One Whose citizenship was beyond the Roman Empire and beyond all Empires—this was the One Who was being crucified, the One Who was being rejected not just by Rome and the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome, but He was rejected by all mankind.
The cross is the hour of His glory, for it proclaims Him as God. Yes, He is a threat to the Roman Empire, to the Jewish leaders, to all mankind’s empires and powers and kingdoms, for He is beyond them all. He comes from outside them all. And the great foolishness is that He came at all.
But the cross is the hour of His glory most especially because of how that story unfolds over the days that follow. For as He died on the cross, we might be tempted to think that the great experiment of the entrance into this world of the One Who is from beyond it had ended in failure. Perhaps this spirit from beyond got trapped in that body and died. Perhaps this One from outside our world went back to where He was before when His body died, and the union was ended.
But we know what happens. On the third day, life erupted from the place of death. The One Who had been killed as an outsider revealed Himself to be permanently man, to be permanently one of us, to be permanently part of our world. They could kill Him, but they couldn’t put an end to Him! Death had no hold over Him! The greatest foolishness of all was the resurrection, when the One Who had voluntarily given up His life, Who had stopped breathing and lain in a grave, began to breathe once more. His human lungs filled with air. His human heart began to beat. He opened His human eyes, and nothing would ever again be the same.
For life had trampled down death.
And in the face of this ultimate, total collapse of death in the face of life, Paul says this: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God turned the wisdom of the world into foolishness?”
What can anyone say in the face of that? He Who was not from us became one of us, and He Who was rejected by His own as an outsider proved Himself permanently one of our kind. And it was death who was laid in a grave that day. And the world in all its wisdom could not figure it out.
Paul again says: “For, since the world in the wisdom of God did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.”
He is the resurrection and the life. He is the outsider. He is the Crucified One. That is what we preach. That cross we elevate today is indeed “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
To the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit therefore be all glory, honor and power, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.