Why is this cross beautiful? When we look at the Emmanuel rood screen, we are looking at death and suffering, after all. This sculpture enshrines agony, mockery, abandonment -- all the things human beings normally want to turn our eyes away from. Why is this cross beautiful?
Today we begin the solemn 6-day journey through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that has been the centerpiece of Christian community life since the 3rd or 4th century. The Bible texts the Church feeds us with today orient us as we go through Holy Week, and in particular as we experience the three great evenings of the Triduum, one liturgy extended over three nights.
Other minor services and devotions are available between now and Saturday night, but above all what the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church asks of her members is to participate in the Triduum: Maundy Thursday at 7pm, Good Friday at 7pm, and the Great Vigil and first Mass of Easter, Saturday at 8:30pm. There is nothing else like this: as I’ve said many times, the Triduum is the Church’s strongest medicine, but it only works if you take it as directed.
So on Palm Sunday as we enter this priceless experience, the Church orients us with Scripture, helping us know where to stand and what to understand. We hear the voice of Jesus addressing us prophetically in Isaiah, recounting his heroic act of trust in God: I gave my back to those who struck me, he says, I did not hide my face from insult, because God who vindicates me is near.
We hear the voice of the first century church in Philippians, an early hymn celebrating how Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and became obedient unto the point of death, even death on a cross, and that therefore God highly exalted him, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. These readings help us stand in a place where we can experience the shame, in light of the glory. We can feel the agony, made even more poignant in light of how astonishingly God used it for good.
And today we stand, and hear, and speak in the voices of all those who participated in the Passion, experiencing the truth of what Jesus went though, experiencing the truth of how we prefer to make God suffer rather than sacrifice our own illusions of power or our own illusions of security. How we’d rather kill him than let him love us.
This is our place to stand: this is where the Church will keep on putting us this week, if we have the integrity and the courage to show up for it. We stand inside the experience of Holy Week, living it night by night, shaped by the meaning Scripture tells us it has.
We don’t just think or debate or watch this: we live it, we stand inside of it, and we let Scripture interpret it for us, because we could never, ever figure Holy Week out for ourselves. It’s too vast and too powerful for that. We have to physically experience these three nights of liturgical action, and we have to let Scripture be our guide, or we’ll never even get close. So let’s hear it once more:
Though Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Why is this Cross beautiful? That’s why. It’s beautiful because Holy Week is not a set of ideas or a topic of discussion, not an act of regrettable violence or a political process, not an historical curiosity or a religious ideology. This Cross is beautiful because through Holy Week God made the ugly beautiful. This Cross is a work of art because Holy Week is a work of art.
Because Holy Week is what Scripture says it is: God himself, entering into the world at its ugliest, and taking all the world’s ugliness into his own body in order to redeem it. Holy Week is the experience of how God can make beauty out of any suffering, even the most obscene or outrageous, even the act of God’s own creatures killing him, even the suffering you and I carry in our bodies and our minds and our hearts right now, if we show up for it. Whatever you are carrying, put it all in this process over the next six days. Don’t be afraid. God knows what he’s doing. Just show up. God knew how to make this Cross beautiful, and he knows how to make all your crosses beautiful too.
Thanks be to God for all he will do here between now and Saturday night.