22 Feb 2015

The People of the Cross

The icon here depicts the Coptic martyrs of Libya and was created by Egyptian American artist Tony Rezk. It appears on the website for the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles. 
A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday at Caravita, Rome 
by the Revd Marcus Walker, Associate Director of the Anglican Centre, Rome

The people of the cross.

Twenty-one young men, kneeling in the sand, facing the Mediterranean Sea.

Twenty-one young men, wearing orange jump-suits, each with a black-clad butcher behind him.

Twenty-one young men, all about to have their heads sawn off.

And, superimposed over this footage – professionally produced, it seems – are the words “The people of the cross – the followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”

I have not seen this footage. Those who have, talk of the terrible moment when all twenty-one start to be killed, simultaneously. There are hideous screams. This is not a clean death. This is not a quick death. But rising over the screams of pain are the cries of “Ya rabbi Yasou”, “My Lord Jesus.”

The people of the cross.

How true. How sickeningly, gruesomely, true.

Meant as an insult, like the inscription above the cross of Christ, it revealed a truth well beyond the meaning, and the understanding, of the murderers.

The people of the cross.

Not for them a cross of ash on their forehead, but the Way of the Cross itself.

Not for them the solemn reminder that they are dust and to dust they shall return; that reminder was dealt to them by a sword on a beach.

The reality of death; the reality of the cross: that is what today is about.

Remember O Adam, dust you were and to dust you shall return.

Those words will be used on us as we go up to be marked with our ashen cross. As we get marked as People of the Cross. As we thank God that we live this side of the Mediterranean Sea, where the greatest threat we face, today, is that someone might tell us later that we have a mark on our forehead.

We stand here today, possibly hungry after a bit of a fast, or gearing ourselves up for forty days without chocolates or cigarettes or being rude to the mother-in-law. Or maybe we’ve decided to “take something up” for Lent, being nice or going to the gym.

And we call this a season of fasting, and mark ourselves with an ashen cross, and remember that we are but dust, and… go on with our lives almost unchanged from last week.

We are people of the cross, but the cross is a more distant cross for us.

And yet, however weakly, we are indeed people of the cross.

But the cross, of course, is not just a symbol of death, but also the tree of life. When we’re marked with the sign of death and the dust of the grave, we are also being marked with the cross of the resurrection and the cross of our transformation.

This is the remarkable thing about today, and, indeed, the remarkable thing about our faith. We stand, on Ash Wednesday, at the foot of the grave, peering in and seeing our mortality, but from the very dust of that grave we have inscribed on our heads the hope of our immortality.

And the irony is, on this day of fasting and ashing, our readings very clearly flash up the warning signs that this is not enough. Not by any stretch. Rend your hearts and not your garments. Don’t prance about with ash on your heads looking miserable because you’re hungry.



That’s the message of today. Turn around.

Because the message of the cross, which seems foolishness to the Jihadists, is not one of death but one of transformed life. To turn, and be turned, slowly into the person God has called us to be; to turn and be turned, slowly, into the nature of God himself – into the nature of Love.

To forgive, and in forgiving, find forgiveness.

Because that is what we are, my friends: forgiving, forgiven, sinners.
And that is where the pain comes for us: to know the times we have wounded others, and to forgive, from the bottom of our hearts, the wounds we have received.
To turn ourselves to face Christ and to turn our hearts to forgive each other. This is the martyr’s crown that we seek to win, as Saint Augustine said to his flock when they expressed disappointment that the age of martyrdom was over. “Your feast day is not indeed in the calendar, but your crown is ready waiting for you”.

This might seem a little weak in the face of the real crowns won by real martyrs in Nigeria and Iraq and Libya and Syria and all across the world.

But this is what they have died for.

When those men cried our “Ya rabbi Yasou”, they were calling to the God of Love; the god of Forgiveness. Calling out because their journey of forgiving and being forgiven, of turning back to their Lord, was transcended by their terrible but heroic end.

Those men on that beach in Libya were not there for war or to convert others, but for jobs. Ordinary economic migrants hoping for a slightly better life, sending money back to their families at home. On that beach, however, they revealed themselves to be extraordinary for not being willing to renounce the God whom they love.

We are asked to open our hearts and let them be torn, but so often that is the harder task.

As we approach the ash today, let us lay in the grave our anger and resentments and feuds and jealousies, and raise from the grave a transformed nature: forgiven, forgiving, and facing Christ.


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