April 2, 2010
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Everywhere there are crosses: on church steeples like ours, as tattoos, on billboards, and along the roadside, marking the sites of fatal accidents. The image has become so common that we almost cease to see it anymore. The comedian Dick Gregory said once that if we really wanted to convey the meaning of the cross, we would wear as jewelry tiny gold electric chairs around our necks.
Recently I read that the psychologist Carl Jung said that the image of a naked man hanging on a cross has to be one of the most potent symbols of human life. But the question is, what does this symbol communicate?
For me, it says three things. The cross tells us that in martyrdom, the powerless become powerful. It tells us that suffering can be redemptive. And it tells us about how we find fulfillment, paradoxically, in self-denial.
I have been to the site of several martyrdoms: the Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi, where he was assassinated by a separatist; a church rectory in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, where a Franciscan priest who gave voice to the poor was killed by a military death squad; the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot by a sniper; and, of course, Jerusalem, where Jesus was martyred.
In all of these locations, I stood on the very site where the death took place. In each site, at first I felt sickened, terribly sad. But then I became aware of a palpable sense of spiritual power. A kind of hush falls over everyone when they approach, for we know that we are entering holy ground. This hush is not grief or anger; it’s awe. At the site of a martyrdom, it’s as if this small world suddenly becomes vast; time and space open up; and we see God at work in history, in this death. What is it that causes this feeling in us?
I think it is the knowledge that the injustice committed is made small and petty compared to the sacrifice made by the martyr. The separatist assassin, the death squad, the racist, the Roman soldiers – they all become powerless and insignificant when compared to the person they try to destroy. And the one who is killed, however great in life, becomes, in death, even greater: filled with God’s light and power. It’s as if, right when the world tries to do its worst, it is unmasked as impotent. It is a kind of victory over the things we are all afraid of: cruelty, random violence, and unfairness. What a liberating feeling.
This is not just a truth about famous martyrs. It is a truth about us, too. Whenever we are victims of the unfairness of life, we can become larger, too. We can also see our enemies as impotent, and we can see God at work in life.
Now I’m a person of privilege: a white, educated American male. And so I haven’t been on the receiving end of much prejudice in my life. But because I’ve sided with gay and lesbian people, I’ve tasted a little bit of the contempt that they, and that every misunderstood minority receives. And I can tell you – it has resulted not in beating me down and making me smaller, but connecting me to a larger thing, to the work of God in this world. My opponents become like so many gnats.
I’m sure you have experienced unfairness and misunderstanding, perhaps even prejudice. Can you let these small martyrdoms be a source of life, rather than death? Can you see that in injustice, the perpetrator is unmasked as impotent, and that your goodness can never be taken away from you? This is powerful; it is liberating.
The cross also tells us how suffering can become redemptive. The naked man, a poor peasant from Galilee strung up to die in the big city of Jerusalem, suffers. During those 3 hours, he died a slow, tortuous death. And we call it good, for his suffering brings forth good. The evil of Jesus’ suffering is redeemed, because it draws people to God.
I don’t want to romanticize the suffering of others, but I can say that I have heard the voice of Anne Frank, who said that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good.” I have heard those who have suffered years of painful chemotherapy say that their ordeal set them free, that it helped them become the person that God created them to be. I have seen the dignity and overcoming beauty rising up out of the suffering of the poor in places like Haiti. I’ve seen that suffering can be redeemed.
My own suffering in life has been minimal, especially compared to these other examples. The worst of it is that at times, I have felt mildly depressed, alienated, temporarily without meaning, motivation, or direction. But it is in those periods that I have grown the most. They took me to a deep place inside that I could not have reached without suffering, and in that place, I found God at work, making me more real, more at peace.
Some of you have suffered greatly; others, like me, not so much. But we’re all somewhere on the continuum, for, as the Buddha said, life is suffering. For a person of faith, life is suffering redeemed. In our darkest times, it is possible for us to hit a kind of bottom, to sit on the ground and discover that we are not alone, and this is not the end. It is, in fact, a beginning. Out of that place God helps us to become more free, more true. And we wouldn’t have become so without that dark place.
Finally, the cross tells us about fulfillment found in self-denial. Jesus knew what was coming. He knew that there were plots to take his life. He could have gone back to a quiet carpenter’s life in Nazareth. But he didn’t. He kept on going. In spite of the cost, he kept on speaking out against the powerful; he kept on gathering and loving and healing the outcast; he kept on being true to God. He laid down his life for his cause. He denied himself – he denied his natural, human desire for self-preservation – to remain true to God and so that his message would reach more people.
There are people who give up much in order to serve others: Franciscans who live among the poor; people in Catholic Worker communities living in ghettos and serving soup to the homeless; those who take literally Jesus’ words to “sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.”
But we’re not all called to this kind of obvious, material self-denial. My version of self-denial is not dramatic. It has been the quiet self-denial of holding my tongue because a parishioner needed my acceptance more than he needed my disagreement. It has been the self-denial of occasional long hours of work that will really benefit other people, instead of staying home, where sometimes I’d rather be. It has been the self-denial of tithing a portion of my income every month, just giving away money that I could have used on travel or savings or something fun.
You exercise self-denial, too. Whenever you temporarily put aside your own preferences and serve the greater good, you walk the way of the cross.
But the amazing thing is that while self-denial may feel like deprivation in the moment, it can lead us to a fuller sense of self. For a life that is focused only on the fulfillment of its own desires and preferences is small. A life that seeks continual expansion and blossoming for itself alone becomes empty. A life that is, on the other hand, sometimes pruned, held back, and denied, becomes healthier, thicker, more beautiful.
This is because self-denial connects us to people and things outside of ourselves. In giving away our time, money, and energy, we are more than ourselves. We are part of the world around us. And our actions go out, creating a ripple of good.
This Friday is a time to take in the potent image of a man hanging on a cross, and reflect on why that image affects us so. It is a time to remember how injustice reveals the impotence of evil and the potency of good. It is a time to seek the freedom and integrity that can come out of suffering. And it is a time to see in self-denial the potential for a much larger self.
This Friday is powerful, and it is good.