Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Scandal of the Cross

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 17 September, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 8:27-35)

Our Gospel this morning, from St. Mark, reveals what theologians often call the “scandal of the cross.” Long before it was ever a religious symbol, before it was the symbol of the Christian faith, the cross was a symbol of violence, suffering and death.

It was an instrument of torture used by the Romans as a deterrent to any and all opposition to the laws and regulations of the empire. The cross sent out a clear message to the subjects under Roman authority: if you transgress the laws of the state and challenge this empire, then that will be your fate; disgrace, humiliation, suffering and death.

And so it is for good reason that St. Peter comes out so strongly against Christ on this very subject. He wants to dissuade Christ from even considering the possibility that His life could end like that. St. Peter wants to remove the cross far away from the life and experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet St. Peter discovers, very quickly, what we already know to be the truth: that you cannot remove the cross from the life of Christ; nor can you remove the cross from the life of the Christian.

Immediately after rebuking Peter in the strongest of terms—“Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33)—Christ turns to the disciples and says to them the very thing He says to each of us:

Whoever wishes to come after me
must deny himself,
take up his cross,
and follow me.
—Mark 8:34

You cannot remove the cross of Christ from the life and faith of the Christian.

About 20 years ago, in 1986-1987, the “scandal of the cross” and discussion about removing the cross, were front page headlines right here in East Greenwich.

Some of you remember the small traffic island that used to be at the intersection of Cedar Avenue, where it meets Kenyon Avenue and Middle Road. On that traffic island there used to be a wooden cross, a memorial to Dr. Eldridge, the famous “horse and buggy doctor” of East Greenwich.

There were great stories about the late Dr. Eldridge, how he would travel as far as Jamestown to visit patients in need, or how he once delivered three separate babies in a single night before returning to his simple home for a well earned rest.

Now that cross, dedicated in his memory, suddenly became the focal point of an intense debate, and eventually led to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress against the town of East Greenwich.

Of course, before a resolution was reached, it was discovered one morning that the cross had been removed. It was gone without a trace. A young man—who later turned himself and the cross in—had come by with a chain saw, cut it down, and carried it away in the night.

By now you may be wondering how I know so much about the history of the Wayside Cross of East Greenwich. After all, I have only been at the parish here for two years, and when those events took place I was in high school.

Truth be told, the reason I know so much about those events is because that young man who cut down the Wayside Cross (no, it wasn’t me) sat next to me in homeroom! He was my high school classmate.

If you followed the outcome of those days in the media, then you remember that he had the best of intentions for doing what he did. Far from being a vandal or disturber of the peace, he was trying to put an end to the debate and controversy surrounding the Wayside Cross by removing it. Unfortunately, it did not end the debate; it only prolonged it.

Like St. Peter in the Gospel this morning, and like all of us, he discovered that—even with the best of intentions—you cannot remove the cross, even if you try. It cannot be removed from the Town of East Greenwich, and it cannot be removed from the life and experience of each and every one of us.

The cross is a reality that all of us will experience at one time or another throughout our lives. It may come in many different forms: a physical sickness or disease, spiritual or mental anguish, the death of a loved one, fear and anxiety about the future, sorrow about the events of the past, an addiction, a broken relationship . . . it could be almost anything. But all of us experience the cross in some way.

The Good News, the miracle of the Christian faith, and the one thing that separates us from all other religions, is that God—who is in heaven, far removed the experience of suffering and pain, who is totally self-sufficient and complete in Himself, lacking nothing—suddenly comes to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and takes on our human nature.

Christ enters directly into our suffering and with the obedience of love He embraces the cross . . . and transforms it.

The cross is no longer the instrument of torture, a hollow symbol of violence, suffering and death. Suddenly it becomes the very instrument of our salvation. It is the means through which God forgives our sins, and opens the gates of paradise to invite each of us to eternal life. It is God’s greatest gift to the human race: the gift of Himself on the cross in love for all people.

The cross changes everything. We are no longer alone in our suffering, in the sorrow and pain that often plague us in this world. Christ has drawn near to us in our suffering. He has the power to change us, and the world we live in; it is the power of God flowing from the cross of Christ. And God wants to return that cross, not to a traffic island on Middle Road and Cedar Ave., but to the very places where we live and work each day.

How is God calling us, in a very real and practical way, to make the power of the cross—His mercy, forgiveness and grace—known in the world we live in? Where are those places that God is sending us forth to make His presence known in the world through lives of service, fidelity and faith?

There is a great poem by George MacLeod that speaks to this very need; it hits upon the sad reality that the cross of Christ is so often conspicuously absent, not only from the public square, but from the private and public lives of Christians, as well:

Return the Cross to Golgotha
By: George MacLeod, Focal Point, January-March, 1981

I simply argue that the cross be raised again
at the center of the market place
as well as on the steeple of the church,

I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral
between two candles:

But on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . .

And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Because that is where He died,
and that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ’s men ought to be,
and what Church people ought to be about.

Today we ask God for the grace to return the cross of Christ to the place where it most needs to be: in our workplace, in our schools and homes, at the very heart and center of our lives; not as some roadside display but in lives of discipleship and faithfulness to Christ, so that those with whom we work and live can look at us, and know that we belong to Him.