A lonely cross

The Procession to Calvary, Peter Breugel the Elder, ca. 1520-1569

A sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, April 1, 2012.  The lectionary readings are the Palm Gospel, Mark 11:1-11, and Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11 and Mark 14:1-15:47.


A few weeks ago I mentioned one of my favorite crosses, the St. Francis Cross or San Damiano cross.  It’s filled with people.  Mary and John are there.  Disciples are there.  Other followers and friends of Jesus.  It’s a crowded cross and one that seems to invite us to find our place alongside Jesus, alongside others who suffer, or who await new hope or new life of any kind. 

The San Damiano cross is a very different one from the cross that might be symbolized by the Passion according to St. Mark.  Mark’s version is lonely and bleak.  Two criminals are there, but they say nothing.  Mark does not mention Mary the Mother of Jesus being there (though he does say Mary Magdalene and some other women were there).  John the Beloved disciple is not mentioned.  The whole scene seems darker than in other Gospels, less crowded, and lonelier.  It’s like the Breughel painting, The Procession to Calvary.  That painting pictures the world going on about its business, oblivious to the pain and suffering that takes place on a lonely hill. 

But Mark’s Gospel reflects the way life is sometimes.  A woman I met recently knows that feeling: the only relationships she’s had in life have been abusive.  She continues to fall through the cracks of programs and agencies, so that two days before she was to have a room at a women’s safe house, a friend called her and she went back on the streets, ending in a month-long spree.  Now she’s much further behind than when she started out.  She knows the loneliness of that hill top. 

Others know that kind of loneliness. The person who faces a chronic disease or condition knows that feeling.  Even though there may be well-meaning friends and family in the foreground, or in the background, on center stage, where the painful action takes place, it feels lonely.  One simply feels out of reach of other people, in spite of their best intentions. 

Too many in our world know the kind of loneliness of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Why have you left me?  Why don’t you show up?  Why . . . ?

The simple, yet admittedly unsatisfying answer is this:  The story isn’t over yet. 

Like the recent campaign to try to help young people live another day, grab hold of a little hope, “It gets better.”  We may not see the light for all the clouds.  Our hearts and heads may be so filled with internal noise that we don’t hear the word of encouragement or kindness when it comes.  And we may not believe that God is concerned or even cares.    But the power of the cross of Christ is to remind us that God does care.  God cares more than we can possibly imagine.

Christ is not a random victim pulled from a crowd.  Christ is God.  God who has come for us.  God who was born for us.  God who is like us and for us—this is God who is made a victim.  But God nails that status of “victim” to the cross, and there it dies.  God shows the power of love to re-shape, to re-new, to re-invigorate, and to re-birth.

Palm Sunday does not end on a high note.  It appears to end in defeat, in loneliness, and in death.  But that’s not where it ends.  And that’s not where life ends for us, either—this day or any day.

In the words and images of St. Paul, God takes what was enslaved, and sets it free. God takes what was humble, and lifts it up. God raises up, brings to himself, and exalts all those who claim the love and power of Jesus Christ.  We all are raised up into the place where, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

It’s tempting to race through any kind of painful time.  It’s tempting to fill the lonely places with something, anything, anyone.  But something else entirely happens if we’re able to pause, even in the painful places.  Christopher Morley has written that “April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go.”  And it does feel that way some times.  But this Holy Week invites us to stop.  It invites us to pause by the Cross (whether it is the cross we endure, or the cross carried by someone else, or the cross of Christ) and to ponder what it means that God chose death on a cross to unleash the power of resurrection.  What word of hope is there for those who suffer today?  What word of hope might there be for us?

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to slow down, to set aside the calendar and the “to do” list. We can put on hold the endless list of “should’s.” Instead, we are invited to worship. We are asked to watch, to wait, to pray, to adore, that we might claim the power of our baptism, that we have died with Christ, and that through him, we are raised to new life.

May this Holy Week bring the blessing of God’s deep and abiding presence.  And in that presence, may we find the hope of eternal life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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