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On Friday, September 14, churches around the world celebrated what is known as “Holy Cross Day.” The themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.” As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.
But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.
The practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.
Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.
This careful, thoughtful, discriminating tongue is also what James is encouraging in our second reading today. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”
If we take up our cross, if we participate in the life of Christ as he calls us in this world, then it’s going to affect what we say and how we speak. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.
Taking up our cross involves loving. The whole Letter of James is really a love letter, trying to help people understand that taking up one’s cross is not only an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. But it’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.
Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about having the humility to follow God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. But we identify it, and we cling to it. “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”
But over time I become comfortable carrying it, and decide that others should carry crosses just like mine. It becomes less my cross than my cause, my effort and my glory.
In today’s Gospel, Saint Peter is confused by Jesus for exactly this reason. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. The plan was in the mind and heart of God, unfolding just as surely and timely as anything else with God unfolds. The way forward was to be a way of humility, of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.
Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such. It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown. The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better. Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.
On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen