A few years ago I was involved in a ‘branding’ exercise for a cathedral – not here, but in Ripon where I was then a member of the chapter. We were commissioning a new logo and the work involved for those pitching their designs was incredible. Everything from position on the page to how it should be used, the size and fonts for any accompanying text were specified. Our diocese has a similar document for its reworked logo and it is common practice in commercial organisations. The thinking behind this is that the logo conveys an instant message about the company and product, and understandably no one wants to mess up that message by careless iconography. So the best logos are instantly recognizable and convey a positive message; they bring the product or organisation to mind. Millions of pounds are invested each year into getting this right and it is a specialized industry.
Today is Holy Cross Day. The cross has been the central logo for the Christian Church since the 4th century. It tells the story of Christianity: Christ died and rose from the dead. An instrument of grotesque torture and execution has become the symbol of faith and hope. The cross meets some of the criteria for a good branding symbol. It is instantly recognizable. It brings to mind the product – Christianity. It is in universal use and so is up there with the biggest names. But what message does it convey? It is far from being a cosy, comfortable image.
The cross is an outrage. It should shock us. We have it displayed on the rood screen dominating the view as you look towards the East end of this church. It is prominently displayed at the front of St Luke’s too. When you go into the cathedral a golden Christ on the cross greets you, hanging from the roof, dominating the vast space of the nave. It is an image in stained glass windows and carved in wood. The picture is of a man enduring unspeakable torture and dying. Sadly it does not just belong to the past. There are Christians being persecuted and executed by crucifixion by the Islamic State extremists today, along with many beheadings, not least the news today of the murder of aid worker David Haines. Our archbishop has encouraged us to pray for him and his family. Today is a reminder that Christianity has a high price at its heart. Grace and salvation do not come cheaply.
And yet we have it made out of gold and silver so that it looks shiny and sanitized of its agony and suffering. It is an item of jewelry. The Holy Rood is the name of a palace in Scotland, famous for Mary Queen of Scots, whose burial is recorded in our parish registers. Across the road is the Scottish Parliament building which will be the centre of our political debate this week. When we are looking for statements or images of identity and our dependency or independence or better interdependence, the name of that palace, the Holy Rood, is what defines us as Christians. This is the love that gives of itself, seeks to draw us together and set us free from the oppression of sin and death.
The cross is not just the means of a death so that life could win through in the resurrection, the cross brings the pains and suffering into the heart of God’s love. The branding document for Christianity has this notion within it. The Christian faith does not avoid pain and suffering, it does not push the darkness of sin and death away, but embraces all of these. It is a sign and a statement that we do not believe God remains separate from the life we experience. God is not just some absentee landlord who sets the world in motion and then exists detached from it. The cross, the Holy Rood, is the profound statement of faith that God is in the thick of life, messy and painful as it is at some time for all of us. Those who have been abused and no one seemed to care, the actress Samantha Morton being the latest to come out to tell her story, the unknown many suffering under the brutality of Islamic State extremists, they are not abandoned to their fate, even if like Jesus they may cry out in their despair “My God why have you forsaken me”.
The cross as our symbol is a statement that Christ died. He didn’t pretend. He wasn’t rescued at the final moment. He wasn’t assumed into heaven as a protected figure beyond pain. He was made vulnerable to the point where the worst of human depravity could be let loose on him. He could be and was made as nothing to be extinguished and destroyed. The idea that God can subject his own presence in human form to that level of vulnerability is mind blowing. The expectation of our world is that he would blast all would be assailants with death rays, instantly melting all opposition. What we present in the cross is a God whose strength is seen in weakness, who lets go of all control and manipulation so that he may pass through it. It is a remarkable tenet of faith and as a symbol is astounding in its raw power and vulnerable self-giving.
This is all because, in the Christian picture of God, it is in the nature of God to give, to pour out of his very self. This is the origin of the universe, of creation. It is a model for our own living. When we try to grasp and control, when we become obsessed by power and domination, we lose the very thing we want to acquire because we can never hold these things for long. Mortality and death are inevitable. But when we let go and risk everything as if we have nothing to lose we find that we gain far more than we ever could. Because while we deserve nothing, can claim nothing as of right, not even our life because it is a gift, we find that the gift that is life and new life becomes all the more present. It is a strange phenomenon that the more we give the more we receive back, the more we let go of grasping the more we are able to hold. It’s not an easy message to learn, but one that becomes liberating. It is hospitable, it shares and it is generous.
Yesterday our Diocesan Synod meeting in Northampton passed a motion calling on the government to welcome to this country those who are suffering appalling abuse under Islamic State extremists and to support them in their hour of need. As Bishop Donald said we don’t want to see the Middle East emptied of ancient Christian churches and peoples, but they are being murdered and do need help. This is an expression of the hospitable, sharing and generous love of the cross. The only reason to reject them is to want to horde and live in fear that someone else may share the rich bounty we have. When we do share it we will find it tastes so much better. That’s a theological rationale for it. The other is just pure human compassion for people experiencing unthinkable brutality and hatred. As Christians they share our name, they share the cross and so we share that cross with them in loving and longing for their welfare.
The cross is the logo of our faith. It shows us that when we try to grasp and possess we ultimately lose everything. When we let go, when we live with self-giving and sacrificial love we gain everything that matters. Open, generous and hospitable. That is the love of God on the cross, it is the message of the true Holy Rood. May it shape us and our friends in Scotland this week and in the years to come.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Holy Cross Day, Sunday 14th September 2014