Behold the Wood of the Cross!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings for Good Friday

Jesus lives! Never forget that, not even on Good Friday! This liturgy is not a funeral for Our Lord. This homily is not a eulogy. We do not come together to mourn his loss.

Instead, we are gathered here today to remember Our Lord’s death and, in some small way, to grapple with its meaning for us. As distasteful as it may be, we must contemplate Jesus’ hideous torture and agonizing death on a cross, for it is at the cross that our sins meet God’s love.

On Good Friday, our liturgy is different from any other liturgy in the year. It’s a muted liturgy, a bleak liturgy, a liturgy stripped bare. On this day, the focus of our attention is the cross—a simple, wooden cross.

This cross is a paradox. On the one hand, the cross is a symbol of torture and shameful death. Crucifixion was the fate of rabble-rousers and rebels in the Roman Empire, and hanging on the wood of a tree was the fate of Jews accursed of God. On the other hand, for Christians throughout the world, the cross is the preeminent symbol of our faith and a sign of hope.


The 6th-century hymn we will sing during the Veneration of the Cross rightly speaks of the incomparable nobility of this instrument of our salvation:

Faithful cross! above all other,

One and only noble tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thy peer may be. (from the “Pange Lingua”)

And yet, amidst such praise, how easy it is to forget the blood and the sweat that stained the rough-hewn cross on which our Savior died. Another ancient poem, describing a vision of the cross, more aptly captures the cross’s dual nature:

I saw the tree of glory brightly shine in gorgeous clothing, all bedecked with gold. The Ruler’s tree was worthily adorned with gems; yet I could see beyond that gold the ancient strife of wretched men, when first upon its right side it began to bleed. I was all moved with sorrows, and afraid at the fair sight. I saw that lively beacon changing its clothes and hues. Sometimes it was bedewed with blood and drenched with flowing gore; at other times it was bedecked with treasure. (from “The Dream of the Rood”)

It’s safe to say that we are all more comfortable with a cross bedecked with treasure than with a cross drenched with flowing gore. We wear crosses of precious metal to proclaim our allegiance to our Crucified Lord. And on Easter Day, we will adorn the cross with flowers—so many flowers that it’s hard to tell that there’s even a cross hiding behind the mass of blossoms. But not today! Today, we are asked to forgo such comfort. We are asked to contemplate bare wood and to remember what we dare not forget.

We are compelled to remember the painful and humiliating death of Jesus of Nazareth. It was not a hero’s death. Our Lord did not die stoically as John’s Gospel might lead us to believe, for St. Mark tells us that, as he died, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This desperate cry is crucial to understanding the meaning of the cross. It tells us that Jesus, for our sake, knew not only suffering and death, but also God-forsakenness. At that moment, the crucified Son of God experienced total alienation from the Father with whom he shared one divine being; in effect, he experienced the torment of the damned. And Jesus underwent this torment, so that we might be spared that final doom. And he did so gladly!

Holy Scripture and the constant Tradition of the Church assure us that the price of our sins has been paid in full by Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. We have only to accept the free gift and to live in thankfulness and love. As a consequence of Christ’s death, we need have no fear of Hell. From that ultimate suffering, we are spared. But as you all well know, we are not spared from other kinds ofsuffering. All of us here know what it is like to hurt in body, mind, and spirit. No one gets through this life without experiencing pain. I can’t tell you why God allows such suffering—no one can! But what I can tell you is that God is with us in our suffering and understands it. Through the suffering of Jesus, our Triune God has experienced our pain, including the desolation of feeling abandoned by God. And we are promised that, on the other side of pain, on the other side of suffering, there is eternal life. That is our Easter hope and our greatest consolation.

When we gaze at that cross, it’s appropriate to feel both great guilt and great relief. If we are honest, we feel guilt, because we are, in fact, guilty! Each of us, if we dare to look within, can find a lengthy list of times when we have turned away from love, whether out of selfishness or out of fear or out of sheer indifference. And yet, as disciples of the Christ, we can also feel relief when we contemplate this instrument of death. For the burden of our many sins has been lifted from our shoulders and laid on the shoulders of the Crucified Christ. He is truly the bearer of our sins!

And yet, we too have a cross to bear, though not the cross of guilt and sin. We are invited to take up a different cross, the cross of love. We are called to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But of course, we don’t—at least, not always! How often, like Judas and Peter, we betray Our Lord! How often we drop that heavy cross of Christly love! But if we would follow Jesus, we must pick up our cross again and again. And so we repent of each sin that trips us up, both the personal sins that we directly commit and the communal sins that we permit to persist. And we acknowledge that, in our own small way, we too are culpable for Christ’s death. John’s Gospel too lightly puts the blame on “the Jews,” a code-word that the evangelist uses for the Jewish authorities. This unfortunate use of code has resulted in a communal sin that has tainted the Church for two millennia: the sin of anti-Judaism. But the blame for Jesus’ death on a cross falls on all humankind, on all who sin, on all who turn away from the One Who Is Love.

Now, nothing seems simpler than this command to love—until you actually try it! Only then do you discover just how demanding it truly is. Godly love demands that we respect people we don’t even like, because they are made in God’s image, because they are fellow members of the Body of Christ. It requires that we care for the vulnerable and the suffering in our society—even if that means paying higher taxes to make it happen!—because Christ instructed us to care for his little ones. It requires forgiving those who sin against us, even when they aren’t the least bit sorry, for to do otherwise might cost us God’s forgiveness. It requires forgoing the death penalty for those who richly deserve it, because we are followers of an Incarnate God who was himself legally executed by the state. Yes, this cross of love that we are called to bear is heavy, but we needn’t carry it alone. Even Jesus had the help of Simon of Cyrene (John’s Gospel notwithstanding)! We are allowed to ask for help, both from God and from one another. When we are struggling to walk in love, we can ask for the prayers of the faithful. We can seek out the counsel of a wise soul. We can find forgiveness and strength in the sacraments of the Church: in confession, in the anointing of the sick, and most especially, in the Eucharist.

For reasons beyond our ken, we Christians have been chosen to be Christ’s hands in the world and to take up the cross of Christly love and bear it daily. It is our mission to share God’s reconciling love with a suffering and estranged world. So, behold the precious and life-giving cross, where God’s love crossed out our sins! Then, in the sure and certain knowledge that Jesus lives, take up your cross, and “walk in love, as Christ loved us.”

© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


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