The Collect for the Feast of the Holy Cross
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Readings chosen for this feast day:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.
Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
Take up your cross
The historian Eusebius (you all remember him, right?), in his Life of Constantine, tells how the emperor ordered the building of a complex in Jerusalem “on a scale of imperial magnificence,” to set forth as “an object of attraction and veneration to all, the blessed place of our Savior’s resurrection.” Constantine’s shrine included a large basilica for the Liturgy of the Word and a circular church, known as “The Resurrection” for the Liturgy of the Table. Toward one side of the courtyard separating the two buildings, through which worshippers had to pass on their way from Word to Sacrament, the top of Calvary’s hill was visible. In that courtyard, the solemn veneration of the cross took place on Good Friday. The dedication of the buildings was completed on September 14, 335. 1,685 years later, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross on this day, with prayers and scripture readings taking us to the foot of the cross.
In the Collect for the day (see above), we ask for grace to take up our cross. I’m wondering this Monday morning what that means to you. People often talk about crosses they have to bear, sometimes revealing an unattractive teeth-gritting Christianity tinged with victimhood. Their crosses? A crabby relative, an irascible co-worker, any number of challenging life circumstances. We all have these forces in our lives, as suffering is the promise life always keeps. But I have a sense that taking up one’s cross means something different.
As often happens when I puzzle about a phrase that may be familiar but elusive in depth of meaning, I turn to wiser colleagues. In this case I found a homily by Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. A great priest and preacher (and accomplished jazz musician), he preached a few years ago on this phrase “Take up your cross.” Here’s an excerpt:
Are we supposed to follow Jesus so literally that we give up our lives, willingly, to the religious and political authorities of our day, who will then put us to death by execution? That’s what Jesus did. Are we supposed to carry an instrument of torture on our backs to the place of our suffering? Again, that’s what Jesus did.
What was Jesus doing during his last days, that we might be called to follow? One way to consider “the cross” is as a sign of weakness. When Jesus took up his cross, he was acknowledging vulnerability. He was admitting weakness, submitting to power that would take away his life. The cross, for Jesus, represented his exposure to pain and suffering. The cross was his vulnerability.
If so, I suggest that “taking up our cross”means picking up and acknowledging our vulnerability. Most of us spend our lives doing just the opposite. We prepare to go out into the world by building up our strengths. We train and go to school and make money and surround ourselves with good company. We even do good and great things in the world with the strengths that we have worked at.
To “take up our cross,” however, means to lay our strengths aside. It means to lay our “ego strength” aside…Something quite powerful occurs when we do this. Jesus said it like this: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”(Mark 8:35).
In spiritual circles, we often talk about this as surrender, a word I admit I have resisted. It can make me think I am called to be a doormat for Christ. It can tap into that heretical religious tradition that denigrates our worth as children of God. But there is a life giving aspect to this dynamic of surrender. Once, while I was struggling with what it means to surrender, I providentially opened a book by Thomas Merton. He wrote: “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”
What does that surrender look like? It unfolds in ways great and small. Wearing a mask in time of pandemic, uncomfortable and annoying as they might be. Setting aside our own agenda, even when we have really important things to do. Honoring another family member, beginning each day asking how I can be of service. Taking a costly stand for justice and peace in a season when injustice is there for all to see. Giving sacrificially to meet the needs of our neighbors.
On this feast day, and in days that follow, might we think about taking up the cross as doing whatever it takes to surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts, and to find new life, resurrected life in the process.