"Faithful Cross above all other,
One and only noble tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight was hung on thee."
Office hymn for Passiontide
On Friday we will celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, usually known just as "Holy Cross Day". And the whole month of September is traditionally associated with devotion to the Cross.
The idea of devotion to the Cross should strike us as strange. Crucifixion was a barbaric form of torture. How on earth can Christians justify our focus on the image of the crucifix? Our churches and other buildings are full of depictions of a man bleeding to death on a crude piece of wood. We walk the Stations of the Cross and sing hymns like the one quoted above, which not only remember the crucifixion, but celebrate it. Doesn't this show that we have a warped view of the world?
A growing number of people draw that conclusion. How should we reply?
I think two things can and should be said.
First, in displaying our crucifixes and walking the Way of the Cross we are refusing to look away from human suffering. We live in a world that increasingly turns from suffering human beings, confining them to the international news reports and the hospital wards, talking about them euphemistically as 'collateral damage', and pushing them to the margins of political debate. In drawing attention again and again to the suffering of the most perfectly human person ever to have lived, Christians are engaged in a perpetual protest against this. We cannot pretend there is no genuine suffering: our liturgy and devotion reminds us constantly that there is.
But we don't just think about the Cross, we celebrate it. Isn't this the point at which we've crossed a line, and become unhealthily morbid?
No. And this is the second thing that can be said. Without denying for one second that the Cross is a symbol of human evil - here we have the political execution of an innocent man, the Son of God - we see at Calvary also the triumph of divine good. Contrary to the claims of some forms of Christianity, God did not actively will the Cross. God, who is perfectly good, does not will evil. The Cross is the work of human beings. The divine Word lived a human life, a life wholly of love, and our response was to kill him. God's response was to turn that low-point of human wrongdoing into a victory. The defeat of the Cross becomes the high-point of self-offering. The decisive 'no' of human beings to God becomes the 'yes' of God, louder and more insistent than our 'no', to the very human beings who killed his Son. This loving response is revealed in the Resurrection.
There is nothing glib or triumphalist about any of this. The suffering of Good Friday was real and horrific, nothing undoes that. But through it all, a painful victory is won by the insistent power of divine Love. And there's an ongoing message here: our defeats, our failures, our lows, the seeming senselessness and frequent cruelty of human life, whether collective or individual, can become the very means by which that life is transformed.
The literary critic Terry Eagleton has described Christianity as a form of 'tragic humanism', valuing humanity but realising that its flourishing comes at a terrible price. That, I think, is the message of Holy Cross Day. We Christians are neither trite upbeat optimists nor grim pessimists. We live in hope, but realise that our hope exists alongside a brokenness which is almost unbearable. And rather than ignoring that brokenness, our hope is precisely in the possibility of its being transfigured. A similar point was made by Leonard Cohen,
There's a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in.