Holy Cross Day, 2017

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Holy Cross Sept. 14/ 17, 2017

Numbers 21:4b-9

1 Cor. 1:18-24

John 3:13-17


In the year 326 or 327, the bishop of Jerusalem began a series of archeological digs in an effort to find the location of Calvary. St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, likely to oversee these excavations, and it was in the course of the digging that she is credited with discovering the ‘true cross’ on which Jesus was crucified. On Constantine’s orders, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected on the site, and we celebrate Holy Cross Day on this date, September 14th, the anniversary of the dedication of that Church in the year 335.

The tone of Holy Cross Day is intended to differ from the solemnities of Good Friday, when Catholics and Orthodox – yes, and even many Anglicans – venerate the Cross in an attitude of grief and penitence. Today’s feast is meant rather to celebrate the Cross as God’s vehicle of triumph over evil and death. Thus the Roman and Orthodox Churches call this feast “The Exultation of the Cross,” many of the hymns reserved for today celebrate the cross not as a sign of suffering, but of triumph. And although no one can say that the theme of triumph in Christ is inappropriate, exactly – for it is indeed meet and right to celebrate, in wonder and thanksgiving, the salvation God won for us on the cross – the difficulty is how to get the balance right between joy in the triumph of Christ and the trap of triumphalism. We need to be watchful so that we do not slip into what Martin Luther called “the theology of glory,” which leaves the suffering and the dark night of the Cross behind, as if the resurrection made all of that redundant to the life of faith.

Triumphalism refers to the all-too human tendency of the Church to shift away from faith in the direction of ideology – in other words, when the Church mistakes its mission to steward the Gospel with believing that it has been given the completeness of the Gospel for its possession; when we confuse discipleship with certitude, we slip from faith into ideology. Who among the twelve knew just where Christ was leading them when he said, ‘follow me?’ The question I want to ask today is, how are we to give thanks to God for the victory Christ won for us on the cross while at the same time witnessing, with a shock, the reality of the Cross still with us? How are we to live in the face of the spiritual verity that in the order of eternity the cross and resurrection are concurrent realities? It is true that Christ died for us once and for all; in the order of time his sacrifice is finished, complete. Yet it the order of eternity it is not. How could it be finished when his disciples still betray and deny him? How could it be finished when we continue to mock the Gospel by failing, in our impatience desire for clarity and certitude, in our uncharitable desire to be assured that we are in the ‘right,’ to live by the faith that has been given to us? We are saved by grace through faith – not by grace through certitude!

Three months after Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, the head of his order called him to Heidelberg to account for his actions. Among the 28 statements he delivered for that occasion, Luther included these three – numbered 19-21:

  1. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though there were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.
  2. He (or she) deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
  3. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the Cross calls the thing what it actually is.1

The theology of the Cross, in other words, refuses the temptation to relate to the triumph of Christ as if we are already living in its fullness, but insists on relating to Christ’s triumph always through the prior reality of the Cross. The theology of the Cross insists, therefore, that the certainty of our hope, the certainty of faith, pass first through the uncertainty of the cross. Every time, therefore, the church is tempted by triumphalism, it must return to St Paul – to see as he did, the terrible reality, the folly, stumbling block, scandal, of the cross. Doing so, “calling the thing what it actually is” – is to live in the tension that this instrument of death is the means God used and still uses to return us to life. As soon as we relax either side of the tension, we lapse either into ideological triumphalism or we turn away from Christ himself, offended by the absurdity and the horror of his cross. That God suffered! That God suffered death! That God suffered death at the hands of his creatures! “So inseparable from faith is the possibility of offense,” Kierkegaard writes, “that if (Jesus Christ and his cross was) not the possibility of offense, He could not be the object of faith.”2 And if Christ is not for us the object of faith, then our religion slips into the sin of triumphalism and ideology.

At this moment in time we hear a lot about the need to ‘de-colonialize’ the Church. But no one I have talked to seems to know quite what this means. What is colonialism? I think it is safe to say that, whatever else it is, colonialism is a species of triumphalism. Colonizers are not the same as military conquerors, but are those who claim to possess the “full and complete account of reality,” and whose impulse is to have all conform to that account. There is no doubt that the Church, aligning itself with the colonializing impulse, betrayed Christ, by making him an object of ideological knowledge rather than faith. The colonial church forgot – and too often continues to forget – the offense and uncertainty of the Cross. Doing so, it slips from faith into ideology; slips all too easily from love into violence (still called love); begins calling evil good and good evil.

My last word today is this: de-colonizing the Church doesn’t mean hanging more loosely to the Gospel proclaimed by John: “no one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Rather, de-colonizing the church requires us to brave more faithfully the mystery of that Gospel: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” De-colonializing the church doesn’t mean putting an end to mission or sharing with others the faith that God has shared with us, but de-colonializing the church begins with a turn – call it repentance – a turn away from the theology of glory to a theology of the cross, a turn away from ideology to faith, a turn away from the need to be masters and victors to being what we have been called to be: servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). In Jesus’ name,


1 Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p.16.

2 Soren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1941), p.143.


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Fr. Travis O'Brian

The Rev. Canon Dr. Travis O'Brian holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the 'Higher Institute of Philosophy' at the University of Leuven, Belgium (yes, the very city where Stella Artois is brewed!), where he wrote his dissertation on the work of Søren Kierkegaard. Travis was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. He is married to Jasmin, and they have a family of four children: Tristan, Fiona, Kamilla, and Matthias.

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