The Empty Cross

From the Pastor:

In a Lenten devotion for Sojourners Magazine, Kari Jo Verhurst shared this story: “A friend from college, soon after arriving at Notre Dame for graduate school, removed the corpus (Christ’s body) from the crucifix that hung in his dorm room. Unsure of what to do with that body, he put it in his bureau drawer. Raised a good Protestant, he was used to crosses that symbolize resurrection, not crucifixion.”

A disclaimer: Don’t do this at home, kids! I’m not recommending or condoning the graduate student’s behavior. If you choose to attend Notre Dame, you don’t have to give up your Protestant heritage, but you probably ought to respect the Roman Catholic beliefs of your hosts. But the student’s action does identify a clear difference between two major streams of Christianity. The empty cross of Protestantism represents victory over death while the crucifix of Catholicism emphasizes the depths of his suffering. For those of us who follow Christ, is it an either/or decision? I don’t think so.

I’m a lifelong Presbyterian. I was confirmed at a Maundy Thursday service, where the focus was on the Last Supper. Looking back, I think my experience was very much like most Presbyterians: historically, we Presbyterians have moved too easily from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the joy of Easter, without entering deeply into the mystery of his suffering and death. Growing up, I attended only one Maundy Thursday service, and that was primarily because I was being confirmed and receiving communion for the first time. Growing up, I never experienced any focus on the depths of Jesus’ suffering.

My arrival at Princeton Seminary coincided with a liturgical renewal movement in the Presbyterian Church. At seminary, I experienced worship services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday along with a Saturday night Easter vigil that touched my heart and soul very deeply and gave me a much richer understanding of the meaning of Holy Week.

Don’t worry; I’m still an empty cross kind of guy. We worship a risen Lord. For communion, we gather around a table—a symbol of fellowship—rather than around an altar—a symbol of sacrifice. Still, we need to remember and honor the suffering that Jesus Christ endured for us. The empty cross vs. the crucifix is not simply an either/or decision—it is a “both/and” decision. A complete understanding of the events of Holy Week requires both: meditation on Christ’s suffering as well as the incredible joy of Jesus’ victory over death.

That’s why what we used to call Palm Sunday is now called Palm/Passion Sunday. In our service on March 29, our children are going to help us raise the roof with “Hosannas” at the beginning of worship, but as the service continues, the focus will shift to the meaning of Christ’s passion for us. I hope you can be there not only on Palm/Passion Sunday but also on Maundy Thursday (7:30 p.m.) and Good Friday (7:30 p.m.) On Good Friday, we will leave the sanctuary in darkness, with only the Christ Candle lighted, symbolizing that “the light shines in the darkness” as we anticipate the joy of Resurrection. This Holy Week and Easter, I hope that each one of us can, to borrow a phrase from the late scholar Marcus Borg, “hear the Story again for the first time”.

The Peace of the Lord be with you,

Mike

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