Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013.09.14 Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day is a red letter day on the liturgical calendar, meaning it is a major feast day with its own Collect and set of biblical readings.  It’s a day set aside to remember, exaltation the calendar says, the Holy Cross.

When we were in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we saw what purports to be the site of the crucifixion, outside the city walls as was fitting for lowlife blasphemers like Jesus, not yet the Christ. The site, excavated from the ruins of ancient buildings (335 CE) was erected to venerate the cross of Christ. It was holy because it was the site of resurrection in the Emperor Constantine’s time. But it was also the site of crucifixion! The site was unimpressive—cave-like, claustrophobic, poignant, disillusioning—also appropriate. 

I’d expected grandeur, Godde knows why. I’d wanted to faint in wonder. Instead I felt stifled, longing even for tears.

Our teacher, the Rev. Dr. Kamal Farah, said the holy cross represented a new beginning: “The resurrection of Jesus is the promise of God’s mercy.”  I believed that with all my heart, and all I wanted to do was run away.

Do most Episcopal parishes keep this feast on a Sunday when people will actually be at worship? Or is it shuttled off to a weekday when no one is in church, or simply ignored? I suspect that very HIGH Anglo-Catholic liturgical parishes keep the day. It wasn’t even mentioned in our local parish.   

The day, if it doesn’t fall on a Sunday, can be moved to the nearest Sunday so that the Sunday parish Eucharist will be celebrated to honor the Cross of Christ, the same as if the cross were a named saint or other.

What’s with the cross? Darned if I know. I grew up Protestant and the only crosses I saw were empty, nice shiny gold usually, but pretty meaningless—bland. The first time I saw a cross/crucifix was in a Catholic church. It grabbed my attention so strongly that I felt ashamed. After all it was pretty graphic-ugly. Was I the type who would gawk at executions or casually knit while heads rolled like Dickens’s Madame Defarge?

But one ought always to pay attention to something that fascinates even if one’s feelings are ambivalent. So I did. Eventually, to my anti-Catholic mother’s horror, I bought a small crucifix and stared at it. I prayed for some wise insight. All I got was my own tears and one thought: God cares.

I wouldn’t get what I’d call deep soul wisdom from this horrific alluring Christian symbol till I hit the skids of my own helpless suffering, nothing like crucifixion but enough to wipe me out—a pile-up of losses (deaths, divorce, rejections). I suppose it was then that I knew for sure that God did not prevent or eliminate suffering or evil. Not much consolation really, but honestly if God would intervene in such a way would Godde not have done so for Jesus of all people?  Or Moses or Buddha, Mohammed, or me. Oh damn!

I prayed to my cheap little crucifix as if God were a spiritual EMT, even when I knew better. Mysteriously I felt better, so maybe Godde was about as powerless as any dearly beloved who hangs in way beyond hope. This was very bad theology, but I didn’t really care. 

Give me a cross that is both empty and full at the same time, I prayed. And here’s what I got, in time.

My first patient at the alcohol/drug rehab center where I was a chaplain I’ll call Noelle, although almost thirty years later I still remember her name. I went to see her in the detoxification unit and greeted her with a bright smile. She greeted me with a blast: “Get the fuck out of here, you fucking religious freak.” Horrified, I obeyed. My staff community reminded me that Noelle would be calmer “dried out.” 

Nevertheless, I felt nervous to see her again. She entered my office and confronted me right away and truthfully:  “It was that tiny cross around your neck. It looked huge to me,” she said. “My mother used to throw God and church at me all day, then beat me up at night.”
   
I took off my cross and gave it to her to inspect.
   
“Kinda pretty,” she said.  “Small too. But it’s different. It has a hole in it. That’s where the dead body’s supposed to hang isn’t it?”
   
“Yes, usually. What do you think?”
   
She fingered the cross and held it up.
   
“Want to try it on?”
   
“Nope. It’s yours.” She handed it back. “What does the body-shaped hole mean?”
   
“That God can take us off our crosses and help us heal.”
   
“Just like that?”
   
“With your help. But you gotta follow God off the cross, which for you now is the pain of your alcoholism. Living without alcohol will feel like another cross for a while.”
   
“I can’t imagine life without alcohol to stop the pain,” she said.
   
“You won’t be alone. You’ll have AA meetings, lots of buddies who know what it’s all about, and listen to you forever, like the best family you can imagine.”
   
After Noelle left I fingered my little cross. Sure enough it was full and empty at once. I decided to keep wearing it , fucking religious freak or not.