Address given on 13 September 2020
Readings Numbers 21: 4-9; Philippians 2: 6 – 11; John 3: 13-17
On Friday. very many people in the United States, and elsewhere, marked the 19th Anniversary of 9/11 – the deliberate destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the loss of those who were working in them.
And, among the coverage of that anniversary, I came across a story about the “Ground Zero Cross” – a 20 foot section of steel girder, with its cross bar, which had been discovered among the debris of the North Tower, and which clearly resembled the empty cross of Christ.
Once this structure had been exposed, it quickly became a sort of shrine for those working on the site.
And, for many a it was a powerful sign of Christian hope – that just as the pain and desolation of Good Friday would lead on to the resurrection and new life, so the pain and desolation of 9/11 would not have the final say – life would flourish again, albeit a life changed by experience;
human kindness and resilience would shine through that initial sense of hopelessness.
Archbishop Rowan Williams – who happened to be in New York at the time of the attacks – was asked the question “where was God that day?” And after a moment of thought, he pointed to those selfless acts of bravery and compassion and said “there” – in that “selfless” and “self-giving” human response” God’s love was realised.
And if that seems a slightly evasive answer, then I’d want to defend it on the grounds that it brings us right back to the message of the Cross – and victory won over evil not by a dramatic show of power and divine intervention, but through human cost and self—giving, human suffering giving way to hope.
And so, back in 2001, for many working to clear what remained of the twin towers, and many others since, that Steel girder Cross made absolute sense – and was blessed as “symbol of hope for all”.
But that wasn’t quite true. The organisation known as “American Atheists” – the US equivalent of our “National Secular Society” – quickly objected to the presence of any religious symbol on what is, clearly a public space.
What represents a symbol of hope to some, suggests a kind of “power-grab” to others who don’t identify with that symbol. And in the end, it took two Supreme Court judgement to rule that the Cross should stay, and it now stands in front of the” 9/11 Memorial and Museum” – where it can be seen either as a religious symbol of hope, or as an important historic artefact.
In the context of our own observance of Holy Cross Day, it’s worth noting the strength of reaction to that cross – positive and negative. Although there were, and are, presumably plenty of people who remain indifferent to it – the symbol of the cross does have the power to disturb.
It doesn’t quite fit with our notions of how societies work – of human achievement and success.
The cross, after all, is first and foremost a symbol of shame: it’s only through the lens of Christian faith that it become more than that.
And if you don’t accept that faith,
or don’t really understand it, then it must seem a truly bizarre symbol on which to pin our hopes.
Growing up in 1970s Lancashire, I remember well the tradition of Whit Walks – when the Cross of Christ was carried proudly in procession, following the band through the streets – to the amusement of some, and the bafflement of others – and with a slight tinge of triumphalism about it. If I’m honest, it felt more like a show of strength – a demonstration that the Church was still there – rather than a demonstration of God’s presence among us.
But then the potential for different reactions and emotions evoked by the Cross is right there in our readings; “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Clearly the brass serpent that Moses raised up was both a symbol of hope and of power – those who were bitten by snakes expected that symbol to save and protect them.
And Jesus, John suggests, is “lifted up” both in the literal sense – to his death on the cross – but also in the sense of being exalted; raised up to eternal glory.
At the cross God’s power is displayed,
but through human weakness,
and the self-giving love of Jesus himself.
And here the Cross and the scriptures reflect something of our human nature. We have a tendency to “lift up” certain individuals – either as being worthy of our respect and admiration, or in order to “make an example” of someone to be shamed and punished.
The media sometimes delight in building up some new celebrity – in the arts, or sport or politics, and then knocking them down again – hounding them until their human failings are plain for all to see.
And all of us, consciously or otherwise, are inclined to “build up” those who stand for what we are thinking – to praise them as champions of our cause, without always questioning their judgement, whereas the painful truth will sometimes be that they, and we, are wrong!
Just as the disciples didn’t want to believe him, when Jesus told them he must be killed, we will sometimes have to wrestle with our own thoughts and emotions in the pursuit of truth and wisdom.
The cross of Christ points to the fact that there was only ever one man, Jesus himself, who was without reproach, and who truly deserves our admiration and devotion.
The way of the Cross – the Christian life – is as difficult as it is rewarding. It requires us to follow Christ’s own example – to give ourselves to the service of others, in ways that will not always win us approval or acceptance.
Yet it’s in that self-giving – and in the dogged pursuit of truth and justice – that we experience the depths of human compassion and resilience, and that the depths of God’s love is revealed.
And in that revelation lies the true power of the Cross.
In New York, in Wilton – made of metal or of wood – the Cross becomes a symbol of hope when it is seen to be the focus of both divine love and compassionate, human action.
As we continue to adapt to the evolving trials of Covid 19, and to other challenges in our national life,
the Cross of Christ calls us to respond with that same self-giving compassion and, in whatever ways we can, to turn that compassion into action.
Just as in New York, in the weeks that followed 9/11, that is where God will be found today.