Friday, March 29, 2024

The Great Earthquake & the Cross


John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday / Year B

An ecumenical chapel sits on top of a hill overlooking a small town nestled around an ocean bay.  On its grounds there is a cross which stands at least 75 feet tall.  From this vantage point in can be seen for miles and miles.  To enter the chapel you must pass a baptismal font carved out of a stone wall.  Water flows from an unseen source into font which, based on its location, conveys the truth baptism is admission into the Church.  From there the water cascades down another series of rocks to fill a shallow pool in a crypt beneath the chapel.  Here the living and the dead are connected by baptismal waters.  The water then meanders in a stream running throughout the chapel grounds, slowly making its way to its journey’s end at the base of the tall cross. 

All of this provides very striking imagery.  We are on a journey through life and death.  We are connected with those around us in mysterious ways.  Together and individually, we are all moving toward the cross.  The final gathering space for the water speaks of the cross’ ability to receive all without ever reaching a limit or being filled up.  I visited this chapel and grounds only once years ago and remember it still as being a peaceful place, as it should be.

The cross is the most prominent and powerful symbol of the Christian faith.  That what Cicero called “the cruelest and most repulsive form of the death penalty” has become such a revered image is a testimony to the Resurrection’s ability to transform all things.  Gustaf Aulen, a Swedish bishop, said, “The eyes of faith are irresistibly drawn to the cross.  The reason for this is that the cross gathers up and summarizes the totality of life.”

Among the many things it stands for the cross represents the experience of crisis.  It speaks to the times and places when our faith is shaken to the core.  It literally is this for Jesus.  Months before his arrest, the gospels tell us Jesus points his face toward Jerusalem because he knows where and how he will die.  The night in the garden, waiting for Judas, he agonizes over his impending fate.  The cross represents this.  It represents all the uncertainty and all the fear.  It stands for every crisis which we know not if we will survive.  And, in the light of the Resurrection, it represents God’s faithfulness and power to bring us through all things.

Every one of us has faced times when we have been rocked to the core, when we have been tested to the limit; a time when we were refined by fire and our lives were changed forever.  These moments of terrible crisis can cause us to question the faith we have taken on as to its very validity.  Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, speaks of such an inevitable event as being the “Great Earthquake” in one’s life.  He speaks of the “terrible revolution which suddenly forces upon us a new and infallible law of interpretation of the facts.” 

The earthquake comes in different ways to each of us, but it comes.  For one person it may be a divorce, for another vocational troubles.  Some know this moment when health issues raise questions of mortality while others know it at the loss of a loved one.  One thing is sure, our lives will be rocked by earthquakes and we will not know if our faith can pull us through, or if it should.

For Jess Trotter, former dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, the earthquake came when his 22-year-old son committed suicide.  The experience taught him classroom ideas about God are fragile things.  He wrote about falling through them and falling not into nothingness, but into God as God truly is.  Dean Trotter called this “firm ground” on which we can stand.  It is the place where we recognize God is indescribable, yet clearly present.  In his last sermon at the seminary chapel, Trotter said these memorable words, “I have been to the depth, and God has brought me back.”  This is what the cross is all about.  It is the earthquake of Christ’s life.  It is a symbol of the depths and God’s power to bring us back.

On this day we watch and we wait gathered like the chapel water at the hilltop foot of the cross.  We watch and we wait.  We offer what Margaret Hebblethwaite calls prayers of simple regard, prayers of just watching.  She writes,

The extraordinary fact about the people gathered around the cross, who abandon all their duties for the day simply to be with Jesus, looking at him, is they are changed by the experience.  Just seeing, doing nothing, turns out to be for them a revolutionary experience, so that afterwards they see things differently and, no doubt, will act differently.  They have not wasted their time doing nothing, but they have allowed themselves to be changed.

In our silence and in our waiting, may we too be changed, prepared, and assured; assured as we gather at the cross God will bring back our Pioneer from the depths and we too will follow him in our time.  We too will be shattered.  We will fall… fall to firm, Divine ground.  We will stand, not because of anything we use to prop ourselves up, but because the God who has triumphed at the cross makes it possible.  And Jesus himself will be our guide.

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