Tomorrow the Western Christian Church commemorates a feast which, in the Anglican Tradition, we call Holy Cross Day. Historically, the choice of this feast date is related to the discovery of the supposed relics of the actual cross used to crucify Jesus. To me, the feast always brings back memories of my trip to Israel, where I went with my parents when I was about 12-13 years-old.
As a school-child growing up in a secular country, I was taught about the richness of the Christian architecture from a strictly historical perspective. But of course, the power of the Christian art is that it is impossible to study its aesthetic elements without explaining its religious symbolism. So, by the time I went to see the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, I had already known about a certain man, Jesus, who claimed to be God and was crucified and buried “somewhere around there”. At some point in the tour, we were, in fact, taken to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that is believed to be built over the area that spans both the crucifixion site and the nearby grounds where Jesus may have been buried. It is the dedication date of this very church that has given us the date of our Holy Cross feast. God works in incredible ways, of course; so little did I know then that I would continue to learn about Jesus, and stand here 25 years later telling you about this childhood trip of mine!
The story of this feast day begins when, in the early decades of the 4th century, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the 1st, gave his mother Helen the honorary title of Empress Augusta. Suddenly, a divorced, exiled, and forgotten middle-aged woman had gained an extraordinary level of power, so much so that she could mint her own coins, had unlimited access to the imperial treasury, commissioned the construction of great churches, and – in her late 70s! - led an archaeological expedition to the Holy Land. According to the tradition, it is on that pilgrimage that she became appalled by seeing a pagan temple in Jerusalem, ordered its demolition, and in the process, discovered what she thought were the relics of the Cross in 326. On the site of this discovery, Constantine ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (a.k.a. the Church of the Resurrection). It was dedicated on September the 13th a decade later, and the relics of the cross were for the first time publicly venerated on September the 14th, which eventually became our Holy Cross Day.
The events of the year 325 passed a long time ago, Jerusalem is far from Toronto, and the culture of the region (past and present!) is very different from that of ours. But it’d like to bring to your attention just two elements of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to make the connection to our own Christian life. The first is a tiny wooden ladder stuck outside one of the church’s windows. It looks rather out of place, as though someone was doing repairs and forgot to take it down, which is in fact just what’s happened - except that it happened so in the 18th century! Since then, it has never been moved because the 7 Christian traditions which have a joint responsibility over the church cannot agree on whether or not it should be touched! The second feature is the stone slab inside the church, which is supposed to be the place where Jesus’ body was anointed for burial. Today, the stone still flows with fragrant oil believed to have healing powers, and thousands of worshippers gather round it annually at Easter Vigil to witness the arrival of the first light of the Resurrection morning.
Two elements of the building that have not been moved for a long time. But, one is a symbol of divisiveness and conservatism, and the other - of the power of tradition to sustain our faith and hope. Which one describes our church better?
Today, we have gathered here for the first time in six months. Many aspects of our worship remain the same, and some are different. We have adapted; after all, if we were always to adhere strictly to every tradition, we would be “stuck”; just like that ladder, forgotten and out of place in today’s world. However, are there some spiritual practices, disciplines, and principles that are particularly life-giving and should never be abandoned -- for you personally, and for us together as a congregation?
As a child at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I felt strongly compelled to touch the Stone of Unction, and to turn some personal items into amulets by dipping them into the blessed oil. This was despite being raised in a secular culture, despite my scepticism, and despite the feeling that I was buying into some sort of a superstition. But where is the line between superstition and spirituality; ritual and faith? Of course, on an intellectual level, I knew that it is only by human hands that the flow of holy oil is renewed, and the first Easter flame is lit. But is it more important for us to hold on to the mystery and miracle of faith -- or at least, respect the desire of others to do so -- or must we pursue a logical explanation for everything in this world?
I think the answers to these questions might vary from person to person, and from one religious tradition to another. However, the desire to, literally, touch the Divine, dip into the healing presence of the Spirit, is universal. In the words of a psalmist, “deep calls to deep”, as our souls both call out to God and resonate with his/her Word. The outward manifestation of this “conversation”, if you will -- our practices and traditions, our conservatism and mysticism, our prayers and hopes, and the very assurance of the possibility of having a relationship with the Transcendent -- may all be “foolishness” in the eyes of the world, as St Paul phrased it. But the world prizes achievement at all costs, always “getting ahead” and “being right”, while the work of the Spirit is unquantifiable and unmeasurable, never a quid pro quo, and certainly not a guarantee of success in the worldly sense. Maybe that is what it means for us to truly “carry the cross”: to bear the burden of living in this world as though we are not part of it, of the sacred knowledge that there is more to life than meets the eye, of having to look through the glass, dimly, and yet still strive to be the best version of ourselves in relationship to God and other -- all of that, until the day that our faith and worship, and love and knowledge become perfected in Heaven. Thanks be to God.