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I heard a story a few years ago about a man who was traveling on business in a part of Asia where there were not very many Christians. In a major city, he began to look for a gift for his wife, and passing by a jewelry story, he saw several crosses. He thought what an interesting thing it might be for his wife to have a cross from a place in which crosses were rare. And so, the man went into the shop and asked the salesman if he might see one of the crosses. The salesman looked at him with a blank look and answered, “Certainly, Sir. What kind are you interested in: a plain one or one with the little man on it?”
“A plain one or one with a little man on it” could sum up a whole perspective of opinion—not only about art history, but also about theology. In the Eastern Church during the 8th and 9th centuries, Christians argued over whether it was appropriate to picture Jesus on the cross, fearing the sin of idolatry. Again during the 16th century, Protestant mobs often replaced crucifixes (the cross with the man on it: Jesus) with a plain cross, believing that the so-called “plain” cross was more appropriate.
Martin Luther, credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation, never forbade images. In fact, in the City Church of Wittenburg, where Luther often preached, one of the altarpieces shows Luther preaching and pointing to a crucifix. Luther’s own words make his acceptance clear, but also help us, I think. Luther said, “God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging upon a cross takes form in my heart … If it is not a sin, but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” (“Against the Heavenly Prophets,” trans. Bernhard Erling in Luther’s Works, Vol 40, 98-99.)
Our own church has a mixture of images. The cross on the main altar is a plain cross, with a ring around it, what is often called a “Celtic cross.” It became popular in Ireland and Britain in the early middle ages and it reminds us, as Anglicans, of our church’s roots in that part of the world. But in the stained glass window over the organ, the Crucifixion is obvious and the body of Jesus on the cross is unmistakable. We also have the crucifix up high over the pulpit and we now have a new image of a cross with Jesus on it, with the new icon in the chapel. I don’t know about you, but I think I need all the various crosses I can get to remind me of Jesus and as I swerve and sway in following him, the cross marks the way for my return to balance and faithfulness.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We could pause there and think about exactly what that means. To love as Jesus loved is to speak to the stranger and welcome the outcast. It’s to notice the ignored and to stand up for what’s right. To love like Jesus is to offer healing, to reserve judgment, and to show mercy—always and everywhere to show mercy. And in case we’re still not sure exactly what all of this means, Jesus continues: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Sometimes we might need an empty cross. Spare and strong, the empty cross reminds us of the victory of Christ on the cross. He is not there because he has arisen. I have a friend who used to always see himself as the victim in just about every possible situation. Finally a wise friend of his said, “You know, you have a lot more say in things than you are admitting. Why don’t you get off the cross—we need the wood.” The Christian hope involves an empty cross because through it God has worked a wonder, opening the way to eternal life for all.
But other times, many of us need a cross with Jesus on it, reminding us of the cost of his way of love. The new crucifix in our chapel is “Franciscan” not only because it shows St. Francis of Assisi at the bottom, venerating Jesus. But it is also Franciscan in tone because Christ is alive on the cross, strong and alert, with purpose and intention, and even there, teaching us, loving us, and imploring us to love more. The result is the same: resurrection and ascension into the fullness of God’s presence, but the cross with the body of Jesus on it reminds us of embodied faith.
We can sometimes live in in our heads. We can pray in our heads and follow Jesus in our heads. But reflecting on the Body of Christ in a crucifix can work like a mirror to remind us that we, too, have bodies, and our bodies are capable of prayer, action, service, and love.
This is what the writer of First John is point to when he says in today’s Epistle that Christ “is the one who came by water and blood,… not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” Water might represent our baptism that refreshing and cleanses and renews and enlivens. But that’s not all of Jesus. He also comes giving and serving and sacrificing, eventually even offering his body and blood in the mystery of crucifixion. He shows us the way—a way of water and blood.
On the cross, Jesus says to the onlookers, “Love one another.” To his mother Mary and his friend John, he says, “Love one another.” To us, whether we are far away or very close, he says, “Love one another.”
Trying to love one another, aiming to love another, praying to love one another, we can pray with Francis, “Both here and in your church throughout the whole world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”