Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Take The Wood Away

A Homily for Holy Cross Day
for the Sisters of the Love of God
Convent of the Incarnation
Fairacres, Oxford

In twenty years of doing this sort of thing from time to time, I cannot recall ever celebrating or preaching on Holy Cross day, so I hadn't thought about it much before. This is lax on my part because when I was first at vicar school in Lincoln, and on placement in St Botolph's church, there was a very good question about the cross. This church is one of relatively few St Botolph's churches - another is the Boston Stump, also in Lincolnshire - and rather high, with much to look at. Archbishop Michael Ramsey's great-uncle was vicar there in the 19th century. One morning the vicar had invited a class from the local school, and we three children from the theological college, to look round the church, and then ask questions. One small boy asked - pointing at the rather splendid figure of Christ crucified on the rood screen - "why do you always show Jesus like that? It can't have been a very happy time in his life".

At first sight, a naive, innocent, sort of question, but you've got to admit he has a point. I have a friend who can't stand the Eucharistic Prayer we are presently about to use (B, in Common Worship) because it speaks of Jesus opening his arms wide for us on the cross. She said "the cross is an instrument of torture and execution, not some kind of cosmic cuddle". Were King Louis XVI by some extraordinary chance to become a cult, it would be like choosing as his symbol the guillotine.

But how else are we to represent Jesus, what other symbol could we use? An incarnation, a baptism, an empty tomb, miracles, healings, exorcisms? Yes, all vital parts of the story, and true, and glorious in art and iconography, but you can't put them round your neck or in your pocket.

One of the things the cross does is to make us look up, which it seems to me is a fundamental religious instinct in all people. Our readings today pick this theme out - the bronze serpent that Moses made and lifted up so that by looking on it, his snake-bitten people in the wilderness would be healed, and in John's Gospel we read that Jesus likewise must be lifted up - on a cross - to bring about eternal life. Listening to the obituaries of Sir Donald Sinden in the last few days I was struck by how his interest in churches was sparked by a grandfather who was an architect - "always look up in churches, that's where the interesting things are". This was true of the first church I got to know - Christ Church Cathedral, as an undergraduate - which is a fascinating enough place, but on a first visit you can miss the most marvellous windows in the spire. I have no idea what, if anything, they depict, they are far too high up, but the colours are glorious, and when they catch the sun, their glory is reflected on the stonework opposite.

And looking up at the cross, what do we see? The figure of Christ crucified from your refectory here comes to mind, which once was in the prioress's office, but seems so very fitting presiding over a larger space, one from which it can be seen from different angles. It is a haunting and compelling carving in wood, originally, I believe, from Africa, and over the years I have seen many things in that figure. At first, more often the dereliction of death, and the brutality of humanity. Later, the possibility that through suffering and death, there can be hope, and new life. Even at times the possibility of a shy child opening his arms to be hugged, and asking you, and me, if we will be the ones to do it. All are images of a vibrant vulnerability.

This figure has no cross, just Jesus, and we can imagine the rest. Take the wood away, and the cruciform Christ is free to embrace us all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

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