Monday, September 14, 2015

The Feast of the Holy Cross


For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles. 1 Corinthians 1:22

TODAY we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross and an explanation is in order.  Holy Cross is an ancient festival in the Western church and it comprises a whole season of the church year for the Eastern church, but for Lutherans it is relatively new.

Tradition says that in the year 326 St. Helen, mother of emperor St. Constantine, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and there discovered the true cross of the Lord.  It further states that she ordered a church to be built, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which still stands today, and on this date, September the 14th, the true cross was enshrined in it to stir up the faith and devotion of  Christ's holy people.

Though Lutherans are late to the party, it is good that we should add such a celebration to our religion's repertoire.  The eternal truths of our faith never change, neither do the promises of God, but the configuration of our religion does morph over time.  It happens at a snail's pace, which is the right pace, but happen it must.  You might think of it as a man progressing through life.  He evolves from infancy to adulthood.  He changes in appearance, knowledge and skills, but he is the same man.  Likewise, the configuration of our faith also evolves, but it is the same faith.

Because of the worship wars that Lutherans suffered in the last 40 years, many people battened down the hatches and refused any change.  It was a counter measure to the sudden and strange practices foist upon them by uninformed, ill-taught and vain-glorious pastors.  It was a strategy, a form of resistance, but after all these years it seems that we live in a new normal: that those who want "the praise of men" (John 12:43) are going to do what they are going to do, and the church is going to do what she does, so that she can again move forward and accept thoughtful change.  Celebrating Holy Cross day is one of those modifications, and a good one.

Now in one sense, every Sunday is a celebration of the Holy Cross because St. Paul writes, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He returns."  That is the chief concern of the Christians:  the divine proclamation that God saved the world from death by death -- the death of our Lord on the cross.

Yes, it is certainly "foolishness" to those who are perishing, and "scandalous" to our frightened flesh, but to those who are saved, who boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in their sacramental connection to it:  Christ!  The power of God and wisdom of God!

It is our faith that the Lord, by His death on the cross, assumed the penalty for the sins of all people great and small, that by the cross He draws mankind away from the sins that condemn them, from ingratitude and self-pity that marked Israel in the wilderness then, and mark us in the wilderness today.  He draws them away from the Fiery Serpent, away from the world's twisted delusions and deadly enticements, away from self-destruction and self-righteousness to Himself, and to the abundant life that He is and gives.

It is our faith that He spares us from future judgment, a benefit of the cross that will loom larger for you as you age and take on greater meaning as you pass through the dangers of life.  What John Newton says in the hymn is correct, "through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; 'tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will bring me home."

It is also our faith that He shields us from sin's debilitation effects each day of our lives by displays of great mercy.  When there are enemies to the left, enemies to the right, no way forward and no way back; He opens the Red Sea and brings you safely through and drowns your foes in the trap they set for you.

The Psalmist is the one who assures that:  He does not punish us as our sins deserve, but rather that as a father pities his children, so the Lord has mercy on those who fear Him.  Indeed the situation is exactly as the catechism states:  that He has given me my body and soul, my eyes, ears and all my members and "still takes care of them."

These and all other blessings spring from the Cross and the Lord who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His holy life as a ransom for many.  You are those many!  At baptism your eternal life, everlasting health and unending joy have already begun.  By the eyes of faith we can descry, and exuberantly embrace that future day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  (Revelation 21:4)

This is why, like St. Paul, we boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is why, though Christian worship features both Law and Gospel, it is the gladness of the gospel that predominates in the Christian congregation, a gladness that resides in the our hearts and minds, but is also discernible to the senses by all that the church is and does:  the sanctuary, the colors, the sounds, the pageantry, the joyful acclamation as God's people sing out their beloved hymns, the water, the word, the bread and wine.  As one young child said to his mother upon leaving the altar:  Mommy, I can smell Jesus' blood on your breath.

This is our heritage, not by decree of the World Bank or the World Health Organization, but because of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which, "I am crucified to the world, and world to me."  (Galatians 6:14)  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

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