The Cross and the Wreath

We come to church for many reasons: worship, community, comfort, guidance, music, habit, the Sacraments. But once we’re here – in this building – or involved in something “religious” — I think that often we become less honest with ourselves:

There are burning questions we suppress. There are contradictions we ignore.  The logic of some of the teachings we say we accept would never past muster in other areas of our lives. Most of all, we may experience religion as antique, lifeless, static, to be reverenced but not lived—and certainly not changed.

This Sunday provides an ideal opportunity to examine the basic template of Anglican faith: tradition, Scripture, and experience, and to be honest as we can about what it is, what it isn’t, and where it takes us.

There’s a lot going on this week to help: it’s Christ the King Sunday; it’s the last Sunday before Advent; and the Gospel is about Good Friday.  A perfect day to dig in and get real.

Christ the King Sunday is an example of church tradition. and was not established until 1925 (not everything comes from the first century).  Following World War I, Pope Pious XI observed the rise of secularism and dictatorships that increasingly ignored the power of the church.  So he instituted Christ the King Sunday to emphasize that only Christ has ultimate authority, even though “king” is a title Jesus rejected.

Besides specific observances such as today, what we call our “tradition” also gives us the historic creeds, the structure of the Sacraments, the rituals and liturgies that have evolved over the years, and the writings of inspiring and profound teachers, including those who continue to work on the Book of Common Prayer.   And what beautiful, relevant gems are in this book, like the Compline prayer:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless 
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the 
joyous.” 

What a note of understanding of life in that last phrase: “shield the joyous.”

But it’s not just the Prayer Book.  Nov. 22, 1963, not only marked the death of JFK, but also of C.S. Lewis, one of the most significant thinkers in 2,000 years of Christianity.  Lewis, who told us that intellectual rigor was the friend of faith and not the enemy.  Who told us that “we are far too easily pleased” with the superficialities life offers us, and who wrote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Some elements of church tradition may be problematic to us; — you are not alone if you have trouble saying the Nicene Creed — some elements are life-giving, but it is in our willingness to interact – get in there and grapple with them — that gives life to faith, instead of merely sitting in passive annoyance.

In every Christian church throughout the world, the Bible is read during Sunday services. Scripture is key to Episcopal faith, as is church tradition.  Personally, I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the best sourcebook we have to practice the faith.

That said, the Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor makes an interesting point when talks about all of the times people have asked her what the Bible says about a romantic predicament or a job or a situation with parents.  “Some of them want to know if they should let the Bible fall open at will or close their eyes and point to a passage for the answer to their question,” she says, “which reminds me a little of reading tea leaves.”

A lot of the Bible is stories.  It is a history of our faith, through the stories of how people have experienced and encountered God.  Taylor goes on to say that “God’s will for these people (in the Bible) did not come to them in a printed manual, with specific answers to be found in chapter five, verse 16. “  They had to work it out, ask the questions, voice the rage, and trust their experience.    “What surprises me, “she says, “is people’s willingness to put the answer they find in the Bible on a pedestal above the answers they find in their own minds and hearts, in the counsel of their friends and in the word around them.  To do so seems tantamount to saying that the Holy Spirit has ceased to function, that God can only speak in the words he used thousands of years ago and the there is nothing new under the sun. “

These are fighting words in some denominations, yet doesn’t the logic here speak to your rational mind?  Doesn’t this explain some of the conflict we feel when a Bible passage such as those advocating slavery or using women as property repel you?  But it’s in the Bible, so..?

A vibrant faith demands that we study the Bible carefully, letting it speak to our minds and to our hearts and to our lives today, it means honoring our tradition where those words have been hammered into action, and then opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit now, and not keep her jailed in the first century or between the covers of one book.  A wise woman I know observed, “All centuries are equidistant from God.”  Wouldn’t it be ludicrous to think otherwise?  And if that is so, we have some listening to do now, some praying to do now.  Religion and faith can feel irrelevant if we refuse to engage them.

On the spectrum of Christianity, then, Roman Catholics believe that truth is found in the Bible, as interpreted by the church, but also found in church tradition. Protestants believe that truth is found in only in Scripture, as interpreted by the individual   And Episcopalians?  We are – somewhere in the middle, embracing both tradition and Scripture, as well as our own reason and experience.  And for me, the last category is essential for an honest faith.

The perfect example of the primacy of experience is today’s Gospel, where someone with no church tradition and no Bible finds God.

Historians call him Dismas, the “good thief” who is crucified to the right of Jesus.  Dismas was a murderer who preyed upon vulnerable people passing through the desert.  He acknowledges that he deserves to be on a cross, unlike the man on the left, who mocks and taunts Jesus to the end.   Dismas sees something divine in Jesus.  Not only that, he says something—he trusts his intuition.  He asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.  I think that is why Dismas is considered a saint by the Orthodox and Roman churches: He spoke up; he trusted his experience of God.

“You must not swerve from the engagements God offers you,” the writer Christian Wimans says, “Even if you are socially shy and someone inarticulate about spiritual matters.”  Even if you are hanging on a cross.

And some of the engagements God offers you may be in your doubt, your questions, your sincere frustration in trying to understand, to get closer to your religion and to God. This, and in engagement with other people – often unlikely ones— where the love of God is made real.

We are also a church of images and symbols.  On this Sunday of transition from Ordinary Time to Advent, this Sunday where Jesus reigns from a cross, a crown of thorns upon his head, two symbols illuminate the journey ahead.

The Cross, two separate lines meeting in the middle, that most basic of shapes, uniting the horizontal and the vertical, the opposites, the contradictions, the polarities of our own lives, all that we celebrate and all with which we struggle.

And the Crown or the wreath or thorns – similar to the evergreen circles that will soon decorate our doorways.  Beginnings and endings woven seamlessly together, uninterrupted, as one year leads into the next. .   Wreaths are associated with victory; crowns with royalty.

The Greeks awarded laurel wreaths to victorious Olympic athletes.  The Romans placed wreaths on the heads of military heroes.

Besides being a brilliant if eccentric World War II general, George Patton was a devoted student of Greek and Roman warfare.  At the end of the Hollywood movie about his life, simply entitled “Patton,” we hear actor George C. Scott—who plays Patton  —  say this:

“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors, returning from the wars, enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade.  In the procession, came trmpeteers, musicians, together with carts laden with treasure.  In the triumphal chariot, a slave stood behind the victor, holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

And, so is pain and suffering fleeting, Christianity tells us, the cross tells us. So there is no place we can go, no cross so high, no grave so deep, that the Christ will not have been there before us, to mark the way back.

That is the promise we hold as we await his birth and his resurrection.  Our Scriptures, 2000 years of tradition and interpretation, and our own hearts and minds are where we find the evidence for an honest faith.  These, and the night sky where there are billions of galaxies, some like our own, and the light from stars that died a million years ago, and the fact we are made of the same stuff as those stars.  Soon it is the season to look up at that sky and watch the stars and wonder.    Amen.

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