Today is Holy Cross Day. We’re told Jesus “opened wide his arms for us on the cross”, but it’s easy for Christians to forget that the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. You wouldn’t expect to go into church and see a noose hanging from the ceiling, or an electric chair in front of the altar. We sing hymns like “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross” almost as if the cross were a teddy bear.
Why do we say “the tree of shame has become the tree of glory”? Why should dwelling on the pain and death of one man heal us? Perhaps because Jesus accepts his pain and reaches out from it to us. When I’m in pain, I tend to curl up and turn my back on people, or snap at them to keep them away. Jesus stretches wide has arms and says, I can survive this. I’m not going to kick back against the people who caused me pain. When I’m gone, I want my best friend to look after my mum and my mum to look after my best friend. I want to wrap my wings around all of you in your pain. I don’t want you to suffer alone.
So we lift high the cross. We believe that in Jesus our pain and suffering can be transformed. And this can happen by contemplating the cross. When we stop our busy lives to look at this image of a man in pain who is not crushed by that pain, and who is not cut off from us in his pain, we wonder. The spirit of Jesus, the spirit of sonship, the spirit of the little child who trusts his parents, can breathe through us and we cry out Father, I place myself in your hands. Life, universe, mother, I trust you. Either this cup will pass, or you will give me strength to bear it. And the possibility opens up of opening our arms to others, in spite of the pain, instead of closing ourselves off.
I love the hymn The Old Rugged Cross. Maybe that’s because it does encourage us to look to Jesus when we are suffering. But there is a danger in cherishing or clinging to the cross. There is a fine line between learning to accept and grow through our pain on the one hand, and secretly hanging on to it on the other. I’ve caught myself thinking “My pain is greater than yours” or “no one can understand me – my pain is special”. Pain competitions cut us off from each other. Suffering is something which can unite us, because we all experience it.
So what did Jesus mean when he invited us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him? It’s an invitation to freely accept what life throws at us. It’s our duty to avoid unnecessary pain, but there’s stuff we can’t avoid – so why fight it? Better to contemplate it like the cross: simply look at it and let it be.
The church presents the cross not only as a remedy for pain but as a remedy for sin: the pain we inflict on others. A lot of pain is caused directly by other people, deliberately or otherwise. It may be by a drunken driver, by someone you live with, or by someone who can’t love with you. We may deliberately hurt people we know, to get back at them, or we may hurt people on the other side of the world by the careless way we live our lives and use resources like petrol or electricity or plastic.
Sin means separation: from God, from other people, from the deepest part of ourselves. From the natural world, which will nurture us if we let it. Cutting ourselves off by thinking of ourselves as different or special, either much better or much worse than other people. Cutting ourselves off from others may make us feel safer or easier, but it often hurts us and them.
Jesus stretches wide his arms and says, It stops here: I’m not going to lash out, and I’m not going to run away. In certain circumstances we may need to protect ourselves from other people. At other times we may need to confront them. Earlier in his public life, Jesus slipped away from his enemies. A few days before his crucifixion, he had a go at the money-changers in the temple. But when it came to the crunch, he followed the path of non-violence to the point of no return.
In different ways, we can stretch out our arms to the people who are causing us pain, even if they don’t mean to, or don’t even realise they’ve hurt us. There is no guarantee those people will respond the way we want them to. But we gain nothing by lashing out. And in the end, we have much to gain by not running away.
Jesus stretching wide his arms is the glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Out of the freely accepted pain and bewilderment of the crucifixion comes the excitement – and the puzzle – of the resurrection. Who is this man? Who walks beside us on the dusty road? Who eats breakfast with us at the side of the lake? Who gives himself to us in this bread and wine which we offer to him? It’s the Son of Man, the ordinary bloke, the one who challenges us to recognise him in everyone.
If we let go of our fear of other people just a little bit, if we stretch out a hand to someone who has hurt us or may hurt us, we may get slapped in the face. Whether that happens or not, we may find ourselves changing and find a little Easter sunrise when we least expect it, and after that no doubt another crucifixion, and another Easter, from glory to glory.
This is an edited version of a talk given at St Paul’s Balsall Heath. Chris Fewings blogs at www.chris.fewin.gs.