Holy Cross Sunday – 13th September 2020: Philippians 2, 6-11; John 3, 13-17
Fr Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens
There was nothing remarkable about the day when Jesus from the town of Nazareth was crucified on a hill outside the city wall of Jerusalem.
City life was going on as usual – hustle bustle, trading, noise, the shout of haggling. It was probably a bit manic that day in the street markets because not only was it the day that Sabbath would begin, but that particular year it was also the day before Passover. The residents of Jerusalem were actually occupied with their own dometic concerns. The fact that the Romans were crucifying some criminals and trouble makers was not important enough to detract them from their priorities. Of course, the families and friends of those being crucified would have gathered at Golgotha. Remember, this was not yet ‘Good Friday’ nor a public holiday.
There was nothing remarkable that Jesus of Nazareth was being crucified. His was not a unique punishment. Indeed the gospel narratives tell us of at least 2 others, who were robbers, being crucified alongside him. That doesn’t mean there were not others also. Crucifixion was commonplace. The main road that ran south from the city of Rome was the Via Appia. This Appian Way was the nearest the Roman civilization had to an autobahn, an autostrada, motorway, αυτοκινητόδρομος.
The Appian Way was busy with traffic, merchants, businessmen, traders, in carriages, horseback and on foot. It was normal to see crucified criminals either side of this main road.
Crucifixion was one of the normal methods of punishment inflicted by the Roman authorities. It was a horrible death, yes, but the most important feature is that it was very public. It was an overt display of what happened to those who both committed crimes, but also those who threatened the Roman state, either in Italy, or in a vassal state. This state was neurotic about insurrection – nothing must be allowed that threatened what they considered to be the Pax Romana.
The followers of Jesus had a different perspective, of course. Those who gathered there at Golgotha were witnessing the public punishment, and slow death, of the man they loved as a preacher and teacher; a man at whose hands miracles had happened; a man they had become convinced was God’s Messiah, the harbinger who would bring in the Kingdom of God on earth.
Their grief would have been palpable as they wept, swooned, and supported each other. St. John tells us (John 19, 25) that Mary, the mother of Jesus was one of them, along with Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. The disciple John was also there, but plenty of the closest friends of Jesus are not recorded as being there to see the death of their ‘master’. Yet, so many had seen this man’s works – his signs and wonders.
Disappointment and grief is shared. Grief will be transformed to joy, but they are ignorant of this as yet on an unremarkable, normal day just outside Jerusalem.
With hindsight St. Paul can write about this same man, and the cross he died on, in a different way. Paul personally experiences and shares the joy and the light which is the flip of the shadow side of the cross – the Risen Lord. When he writes to the Christians in Philippi he speaks of God and the cross is an entirely new and radical way. Jesus is none other than the form of God, equal to God – God emptied in Jesus (kenosis); Jesus is as a slave is, humbled, obedient, crucified. Yet at the same time in this terrible self-sacrificial act, he is exalted, has pre-eminence; every knee will bow before him and all confess him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. The cross of shame is the throne of glory, and in this man Jesus we see the fullness of the God in whom we believe, and in whom we are being saved.
When the Empress St. Helena, mother of Emperor St. Constantine, decides to make a pilgrimage to the homeland of this man Jesus, whom she accepts as Lord and God, she asks for the blessing of the Pope in Rome. In Evelyn Waugh’s lovely novel called Helena the conversation goes like this.
‘Where is the cross anyway?’ She asked. ‘What cross, my dear?’ ‘The only one, the real one’. ‘I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. I don’t think anyone has ever asked before.’ Pope Sylvester goes on to say, ‘You’ll tell me, won’t you? – if you are successful.’ ‘I’ll tell the world.’
In Jerusalem at Golgotha Helena is guided to search in an area covered with basil bushes – of course, the plant of ‘the King’. Just as I said earlier the hill was covered in bits of wood – the tradition is that when the right bits were put together a dead man was placed on it and came alive again.
Helena was as good as her word, and the whole world now knows of her ‘invention’, her discovery. We too are commanded to tell the whole world about the mystery of the cross, and the man Jesus, crucified for us to guide us home to the Father, the man Jesus raised by God from the dead, the man whom the early disciples, Mary, Paul, Helena, and billions of people since, have worshipped, bent the knee, and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ Go, and baptise all the nations’ he tells us.’ (Matt 28, 19)
Philippians 2, 6-11 expresses for us superbly, in St. Paul’s words, a paradigm – THE paradigm – of God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. St. John (John 3, 16), expresses it in this way, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.
In our own day the paradigm of God has much to teach us – the paradigm (παράδειγμα) is our example of Godly living, and at its heart is the mystery of the cross, humility, self -emptying, obedience. It is when we accept this that we can share in the mystery of our faith.
This paradigm turns upside down and inside out everything that we assume God will be. We assume that God is, in our human understanding of these words, all-powerful, almighty, omnipotent, yet Paul’s words in Philippians bring us to kneel at the feet of the one whose power and might rested in him not exercising this. I have used before the phrase, ‘the power of power not exercised.’
In Jesus, the man who died unnoticed by most people at a place where hundreds were put to death, by a method that was common-place, God chose to dwell fully, and show forth his glory in a manger in a stable, and on a cross on a little hill. As people of faith, we need to look at everything we do, everything we see, everything we assume, everything we collude with, everything we tacitly support, and apply to it the paradigm of the cross – a sign that in God’s kingdom nothing is what we expect.
In Greece this week, on the island of Lesbos, something tragic happened – we all know about it. Each of us will have a variety of views and reactions to what happened at the Moria Refugee camp. Those views might be coloured by where you live – suppose you live in Mytilene or one of the villages around it. Your view might be coloured by how the presence of this vast blight of a refugee camp has affected tourism, with the knock on effect on your hotel, your restaurant, your livelihood, the school where your children attend.
Your view might be coloured by what you think about refugees and migrants and their impact on Greece and Europe generally, and why does the EU not do more to help Greece; why should refugees be given cash cards to buy groceries when elderly Greek women, citizens, our mother or grand-mother’s age have to open the big street pedal bins to try and find something to eat or wear, or sell on for a few cents? You might be angry because your taxes are paying for the camp that was burned down by those it was built for; your taxes now pay for 900 police officers on one small Aegean island.
Your view might be one of exasperation that we allow such refugee camps to exist at all; that they are inhumane, undignified, soul destroying, a sign of our failure and the failure of the nations.
These views and many others will colour the way we respond and react to complex situations of human challenge and misery. Whatever our view, we must return again and again to the Philippian’s paradigm of Paul to rediscover what our faith says to us, and how we understand ourselves and our world, in relation to the kenotic God, who emptied himself for the sake of his love for us.
It is extraordinary, is it not, that this man who died on a fairly normal busy day, with just a handful of friends around him, in a way that common criminals were punished, on a little hill outside Jerusalem, should have such a powerful hold on our lives and in the shaping of our world – the mystery of that cross.
‘You’ll tell me, won’t you?-if you are successful.’ ‘I’ll tell the world.’