Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Holy Cross Day

It is hard to fathom why this holy day was not included in our American Prayer Book. It was retained in the Prayer Book of the Church of England, but only as a “Black Letter” day, i. e., a day noted in the calendar but not provided with a Collect, Epistle and Gospel of its own. We can be grateful for the publication of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts,” in 1963, which gives us the Collect, Epistle and Gospel we are using today.

Both for preaching and for devotion, this is an exceedingly valuable feast. We remember and proclaim our dear Lord's death upon the cross in Passiontide and supremely on Good Friday. But that is only two brief weeks just before Easter. The wonderful hymns for Passiontide deserve more use than just a handful of services. Any clergyman who has preached his way through this brief season is bound to be aware that even a million sermons on the cross of Christ would only skim the surface of such a topic.

Most families have a skeleton in the closet, a shameful episode which is never spoken of, particularly before children. Coming from an eminently respectable family, I learned only recently of a close relative, a great-uncle long dead, who was convicted of a crime and served time in the penitentiary. That was simply never discussed, and the fact was vouchsafed to me only when I reached the age of 70, by an aunt who is nearly 90. The nature of the crime itself is still a secret.

It is an almost shocking thing that the earliest Christian disciples went around constantly talking about a thing which other people—non-Christian people—would have treated as a shameful family scandal. Their Rabbi, whom they called Lord and Saviour, whom they proclaimed as Risen and Ascended, had died no ordinary death. He had been crucified! In the eyes of the world, such a death was the ultimate disgrace. Hanging or stoning was shameful enough, but crucifixion was reserved for slaves and the worst of criminals. Why was this not kept as a family secret?

In today's Epistle we have a passage (also read on Palm Sunday) where Paul appears to quote a hymn from the church's liturgy. But one phrase Paul himself inserted into the hymn. After the words “he became obedient unto death,” Paul added, “even the death of the cross.”

The message of the New Testament, the very heart of the Gospel, is that in the crucifixion of Jesus, God provided a way to defeat the devil and to provide for the forgiveness of sins. So it is that (in Paul's words), “God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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