The Cross is also the subject of some of the most famous works of art in history: Giotto’s Crucifixion all in blue with angels flying around, Velazquez’ version where Jesus’ skin seems almost radiant in the blackness that envelops him. There are crosses made by artists in Central America that picture colorful peasant villages; crosses that look like flowers; crosses that are so perfectly symmetrical and stylized that you have to look at them for a few minutes to realize they even are crosses at all.
Well, the wooden cross at the altar today is much more realistic. The real cross was big and heavy, enough to bear the weight of a grown man, a criminal. Surely the wood was rough, surely it was filthy, and definitely, to everyone who saw it, the Cross meant crime, and capital punishment, and condemnation. It sent the message that those who were at the top of the political heap could and would exclude and batter and crush those who opposed them.
Anyone who lived at the time crucifixion was used as a method of torture and execution would be deeply shocked, I’m sure, to see us admiring priceless artworks about it, or wearing crosses around our necks. The Cross was meant to be evil. It was meant to kill hope, like every act of terror is. It was meant to shock and maim and destroy. It was meant, above all, to make sure that Jesus Christ would never trouble the powers that be again. To make sure that his followers would get the message: your little religious fantasy is nice, but don’t forget who’s really in charge. Don’t forget how things really are.
But it didn’t work. It didn’t work, because things are actually not the way the powers that be think they are. They are the way God makes them. Love is stronger than hate, so what the powers that be tried to do by killing Jesus didn’t work. It didn’t work, because God’s ability to bring good is always more than ours to bring evil. It didn’t work, because rather than let that unjust suffering stay meaningless, instead God chose to enter all the way into it. Into all suffering, really, everywhere, for all time: into the maimed bodies, the spilled blood, the ethnic slurs, the hate of the mob, to enter into all of it, forever, and absorb it freely into himself. He did it 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, he did it earlier this week in Brussels, and he’s doing it right now for you and me, to carry our guilt and shame and cleanse us completely.
And once he’s done that – well, perhaps we shouldn’t speak the word today, but you know as well as I do what happened on Easter morning.
And because of that, even on this mournful day in the shadow of the Cross, we can give thanks. We can give thanks, as the words of our Prayer Book put it, that God “by the passion of his blessed Son made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.” If the cross were only one of history’s cruelest forms of state sanctioned murder, if the story ended with Jesus’ unjust, bloody death, there would be no reason to venerate the Cross today. No reason to be here at all. But condemnation and loss and death are not the end of the story. Not the story of Jesus, and thanks to him, not our stories either.
See, it’s really no wonder we turn our crosses into thrones for a King. It’s no wonder we enhance them with gold and jewels, or paint them with bright colors of joy. We have to make our crosses beautiful, because even on this day we know the truth: through the power of the Cross of Christ, everything else can be made beautiful too.