The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”1 Corinthians 1:18
Today, September 14, I join with many Christians around the world in observing “Holy Cross Day.” The history of this festival is quite interesting. It begins back in the year 335 in Jerusalem. The traditional story is that St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, discovered the true cross on which Christ was crucified. A church was built on this site where Christ was crucified, and the actual cross was housed there. 300 years later, Jerusalem was sacked by the Persians, and the church was destroyed and the cross taken. Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross, and on this day in 629, returned it to Jerusalem.
According to an ancient tradition, the Emperor, in his richest clothing, tried to carry the cross in procession from Jerusalem to Mount Calvary. The tradition says that when he tried to lift the cross, he found that it was too heavy and he could not lift it up. The bishop of Jerusalem, seeing this, told the Emperor that the only way to carry the cross was to do it as Christ had done it. So the Emperor changed into the simple clothing of a pilgrim and he took off his shoes. It was only then that he was able to carry the Holy Cross to the top of Mount Calvary.
This story, I think, shows us a tension that the church has always had with respect to its greatest symbol, the cross. We want to celebrate the cross as the triumph of God’s love. We want to lift high the cross. And of course we should. But when we do, we are tempted to turn the cross into a symbol of glory and power, rather than a symbol of suffering and love. We want the cross to be a glorious symbol of our amazing God. We want to put on our best clothing, and build our finest buildings, and make the cross the symbol of glory and power and majesty. But like Emperor Heraclius, we find that the cross is too heavy when we try to lift it in our way. We can’t do it. Instead, we must humble ourselves. We must admit that the cross is a symbol of suffering and even death, and it is only through our suffering and death to our old way of life and old way of seeing the world that we can take up the cross and carry it ourselves. We can only lift high the cross through the divinely-chosen way of humility and service.
This is, of course, foolishness to the world, and sometimes to us. And this is why this is a rather foolish festival. There is no getting around it. To the world, we are foolish to celebrate a festival which lifts up a symbol of humiliation and weakness for all the world to see. But to us? It is the power of God. This is why I keep coming back to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, especially today – to remember Paul’s words that the message of the cross might seem foolish to the world, but to us it will always be the power of God and the wisdom of God.