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One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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The Nation State of Idolatry

“You are a city set upon a hill.”

Many American Christians heard that from Matthew’s Jesus two weeks ago, as they sat in church (Mt. 5:14). That image of a shining city on a hill has populated the speeches of American politicians for a long time and it stretches all the way back to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I freely confess to loving that bright, sparkling image of America – I love it, that is, when I agree with the policies of the political party in power.shining_city

And that’s the dolorous blow to Gospel witness that Christians must resist on this Presidents’ Day and every day. Christians have always faced a grave risk, ever since the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine apparently embraced Christian faith. American Christians seem especially vulnerable to the danger – I mean the risk of conflating triumphant nationalism with the Kingdom of God and mistaking patriotism for faithfulness to the Gospel.

America first?

No, that’s called idolatry.

I do believe Christians should be involved in the political process because we are Christians; I do believe faith communities have a stake in public policies because of our faith; and I do believe that this country’s guiding principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all express something vital about the Gospel; America might even come close to being “great” if we actually put those principles into effective practice.

And yet, I remain haunted – as every Jew, Christian, and Muslim ought to be – by the specter of idolatry lurking around every patriotic corner. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, presents a compelling case for why the modern nation-state generally (and not just the American version in particular) functions as a religion and is treated by many as a savior. It’s totalizing effects and demands for unqualified loyalty more than fit the bill for an idol.

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“The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism,” Cavanaugh writes. “A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.” He further encourages a range of church practices to help resist the “colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself” (p. 5).

Practices, that is, to help us avoid falling so easily, carelessly, and deeply into idolatry.

My friend and colleague Tripp Hudgins recently posted on Facebook what he called a “lament” for this Presidents’ Day and offered a searing reminder of what our peculiar faith as Christians demands from us in relation to empires, regimes, realms, and yes, nation-states.

Tripp affirms the need and necessity for Christians to stand against “Empire” in all its guises, including the democratic vestments this country currently wears. He cautions us, though, against supposing that resistance means a peaceful transfer of power or a bloodless revolution. More pointedly, “the truth about resistance and where it has historically…led Christians is to martyrdom.”

That path swerves decidedly away, as Tripp notes, from what many American Christians would consider laudable “revolution.” Too many understand heroic duty as the overthrow of tyranny with violence and far too few in the vulnerable witness of an Oscar Romero.

Tripp concludes with a reality check, the kind that can dispel my own romanticism about living as a Christian martyr and what such a witness actually entails. “Though Empires all share the same ending,” he writes, “they do not give up their power and position without taking the innocent down with them. And the Christian standing in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, and the innocent will find their end in the martyrdom of solidarity.”

I cannot love this country as I once did in my enthusiastically patriotic childhood. But I can love the land, and its people, and even some of its presidents when they inspire us to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I can love even the enemy, as Tripp says, “who cannot help but break your heart. Such love is the most profound Christian expression of solidarity with all creation.”

Wherever such love and solidarity are found, it seems to me, the shining city has once again been set upon a hill.