Re-Imagining the Church: the Triumph of the Cross 2018

For some, today will be coloured chiefly by the liturgy as we celebrate the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For others, there will be a remembrance of the death of Dante, surely among the greatest of all poets and Christian thinkers. For those who dwell in monasteries, especially those who serve as cook, there will be some more worldly concerns as we begin the winter fast. The link between all three is membership of the Church. The liturgy for this day reminds us very firmly of the central mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Dante’s vast, imaginative sweep gives expression to centuries of meditation on that same mystery, while the monastic cook ensures that we feel in our flesh something of what that mystery demands. All well and good, but for many more, if they think about the Church at all, it will be to ask what is being done about the abuse scandals in the absence of any coherent answer from the pope and bishops beyond an exhortation to prayer and penance and the promise of a synod of bishops some months hence. As some have pointed out, asking the laity to do penance for what is largely a sin of clergy and religious strikes something of a false note. Of course we recognize that we are all involved, that our membership of the Church means we have a collective responsibility, but I do not think it works out in quite the way that those outside the Church assume. If we spend too much time on what we’d like the Church to be, we shall be in danger of missing or misunderstanding what she actually is. We need to do a little re-imagining, and I think today’s feast is an encouragement to do so.

Today’s gospel ends with the words

God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved. (John 3.17)

Have we lost sight of that in our preoccupation with how we would like the Church to be? So many of the disputes within the Catholic Church tend to be an attempt to refashion the Church according to our own notions. We would like the Church to be ‘traditional’. The problem with that is that we tend to interpret the word according to our own ideas, locating the ‘perfect’ Church in a particular time and form, ignoring all the rest. Alternatively, we would like the Church to be ‘liberal’. The problem with that is that our ideas may stray quite far from the teaching of the Church, leading us into heresy of one kind or another. We forget what today’s feast and today’s gospel insist upon: the Church exists to bring us all to salvation. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, from our own experience of the Church and ask how the Church’s mission might best be accomplished in the world in which we live and why she is as she is. Her structures will not change overnight; the Truth she teaches will not change, although the way in which she presents it may (just think how much we have learned about the universe since Dante wrote of ‘the Love that moves the sun and lesser stars’!). Above all, human nature remains essentially the same. Our re-imagining of the Church must take account of all these. Perhaps what we most need at this time is humility and a willingness to let go of our own ideas. The problems we confront, from environmental pollution to Artificial Intelligence and its as yet undreamed-of ramifications, will stretch us, no doubt about that. But in the midst of it all, at the very centre of whatever worlds there are, stands the Cross, unmoving. That gives us hope. It also provides the impetus to question, to reflect, to pray.

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The Triumph of the Cross 2011

I have written so much about this feast in the past that I am in danger of boring myself, so this morning just a slightly quirky thought to share with you. For Benedictines, this feast, like the Cross it commemorates, is a hinge, a turning-point in the year, for it marks the beginning of the winter fast and our preparation for Easter. It is a case of liturgy and observance making explicit a theological truth we might not otherwise understand. The Cross stands throughout the ages and the world turns on its axis. It is the pivot of human history.

We are constantly reminded of the cosmic significance of what happened on Calvary by the crosses and crucifixes in our churches and chapels. Is there any difference between the two, apart from the obvious one of having, or not having, a figure of Christ? Our processional cross here in the monastery has a corpus, a representation of Christ crucified. Should the community ever have an abbess, she will wear a pectoral cross without any figure on it. Why the difference?

Our processional cross reminds us that Christ is our leader. Where he goes, we follow. It wouldn’t really matter whether we used a plain cross or a crucifix; the symbolism is the same. The plain abbatial cross, on the other hand, represents an older tradition in the Church. It implies a close identification between the wearer and the sacrifice of Calvary. As we sing on Good Friday, Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit: Venite adoremus. ‘Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world: come, let us adore.’ We reverence the wood of the Cross, the actual physical instrument of the Lord’s death; and our future abbess, mindful that she ‘holds the place of Christ’ in the monastery as St Benedict enjoins, must identify herself with the sacrificial act of our Saviour. She must become, so to say, one with the Crucified, prepared to lay down her life for the community she serves. She must be the hinge of the community, as the Cross is the hinge of the world.

The Triumph of the Cross is a great and beautiful feast. It is also one which challenges us to the core of our being. Christian service cannot be other than sacrificial, prepared to give everything, even life itself.

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