Browsing From the Pastor's Desk

Taking a Stand for the Cross

May 24, 2018

We have arrived at Memorial Day, the practical beginning of summer. Of course, going by the thermometer, summer began a few weeks ago. But on this Memorial Day, we gratefully remember all those who gave their lives for their countrymen. As Jesus told us, no one has greater love than this.

Today in cemeteries across this country, flags mark the graves of those who made this greatest sacrifice, as well as the graves of those who were willing, those who served us in the armed services. Many of those graves are marked with a gravestone in the shape of the cross.

The cross, too, is a powerful memorial: the memorial of Jesus Christ. It was Constantine who believed he received the message from heaven “In this sign you shall conquer.”

Last year I wrote about the Peace Cross veterans memorial that stands outside Washington, D.C. in Bladensburg, Maryland. A federal court had determined that this was a religious symbol and that the use of government funds to maintain this memorial was unconstitutional; that this Peace Cross veterans memorial must either be demolished or reconfigured into an inoffensive pillar. The American Legion appealed this decision, and late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision that the Peace Cross must go. Now the case is going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What does the cross mean in the 21st Century?

There is an interesting controversy about this very question going on right now in Bavaria, Germany’s most Catholic state. The state government has ordered that Christian crosses should be placed on the entrance of all state government buildings. As you can imagine, many non-Christians and former Christians are not happy about this. But Bavaria’s conservative government has said the crosses should not be seen as religious symbols; they are meant to reflect the southern German state’s “cultural identity and Christian-western influence.” So, they say, the cross is not religious. Really?

Cross forms were used as symbols, religious or otherwise, long before the Christian times, but it is not always clear whether they were simply marks of identification or were significant for belief and worship. Two pre-Christian cross forms are noteworthy. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol of life—the ankh, a tau cross surmounted by a loop and known as crux ansata—was adopted and extensively used on Coptic Christian monuments. The swastika, also called crux gammata, is marked on many early Christian tombs as a veiled symbol of the cross. And of course it is an ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Amerindian symbol, too.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Munich Reinhard Marx has answered the Bavarian government’s explanation. “If the cross is just seen as a cultural symbol, then it has not been understood,” Cardinal Marx said. The cross has been a sign of opposition to violence, injustice, sin, and death, but not a sign against other non-Christian people. The debate that has ensued about the cross is important as it has brought to light the need to discuss what it means to live in a country shaped by Christianity. “The cross means including everyone, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and non-believers,” Marx said. We need to have that discussion here, too. If only a civil discussion were really possible here.

Pope Francis tells us life isn’t Christian without a cross. “This is the path of your freedom. This is the way of the Messiah, of the Just: the Passion, the Cross.” Certainly we have all heard that we must carry our crosses, or cross (if we are lucky enough to just have one). Jesus himself said so. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Mt 16:24

We can make our own statement about the cross. This is summer, so this is vacation time and many of us will be travelling. Courtney, our youth minister, had this great idea. Bring a cross back from your vacation destination, and bring it here for us to put on a wall of crosses right here in the Parish Center. I have already placed there a beautiful cross from Haiti. I’ll be leaving on my vacation in three weeks, going home to upstate New York. I’ll be looking around there to bring back an Iroquois cross, since the Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk peoples are the original people there. Wherever you go, you will find that the people there have made the cross their own and that they know what it means.

This Memorial Day, take a stand for the cross. Just as much as the sacrifices of our men and women in the armed services, the truth will set you free.

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