Homily, The Crucifix
The Second Sunday in Lent, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF
Today’s Lectionary Readings:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever prayed with a crucifix? It’s the season of Lent and I’m taking on a little bit more of a teaching style as I share with you some spiritual practices, and this week I’d like to talk about one way to pray with a crucifix. We don’t normally have a crucifix here at Good Shepherd and so I’m projecting an image of one of my favorites, the San Damiano cross, as an example.
The crucifix is a mirror. When we look at it, it shows not only Jesus and his suffering; it shows ourselves and our own suffering. And for that reason, many of us don’t spend much time with the crucifix. I grew up in a tradition which told me that we didn’t use a crucifix because Christ is no longer on the cross. And while I appreciate that perspective, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason for not using a crucifix is simply that it made us uncomfortable. The crucifix is an image of suffering, which is exactly what we spend our lives trying to avoid. So maybe it’s better to stick with the more simple image of an empty cross.
But I believe the crucifix has a powerful lesson to teach us. At first glance the crucifix may look to us an image of suffering, but if we gaze upon it we may also find that it is an image of healing.
That’s what I think our gospel passage suggests this morning. In it Jesus says to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The story he’s referencing here is from the Book of Numbers, chapter 21, where the people of Israel are plagued by poisonous snakes and pray to God for relief. And God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, to put it high on a pole in the camp, and whenever anyone is bit, if they simply look at the serpent on the pole, they will live. It’s an interesting story and may call to mind for you, the image of the Rod of Asclepius, which has come to be a universal image for medical services, a symbol of healing. And so Jesus says, “Just as the serpent is lifted up as a source of healing, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” In looking up to Jesus on the cross, humanity finds healing from suffering.
Now we have to be careful here because there are many theologies of the cross. So let’s talk theology. Some see the cross as Jesus taking on punishment for our sins. Some see the cross as the result of Jesus’ revolutionary love in a world of violence. Some see the cross as a ransom payment which rescues us from the hand of the devil. All of these theories of the cross have something to teach us, but for me the cross is solidarity. In the cross we see a God who knows what it is to suffer. We see in the eyes of Christ a knowing love, that understands what we are going through. When I look at a crucifix, I see a God who shares in our suffering.
And this is why that is so important: If Christ shares in our human suffering, then we share in Christ’s Divine healing. The two are joined together. In the crucified Christ we see the mingling of Divinity and Humanity, of suffering and healing, of death and life. The crucifix is a symbol which points to the intersection of both the suffering of humanity and the healing of God. (In this crucifix you can see humanity represented by all the people gathered around Jesus and if you look closely at the top, you can just barely see the hand of God reaching down from above.)
Now I’m not so sure Nicodemus understood all of that in Jesus’ words. And we know very little about the rest of his story except that he was there when Jesus was crucified. And having earlier been invited to look upon the Son of Man lifted up, later when he saw Jesus on the cross he was moved enough to help take his body down, adorning it with his own gift of myrrh and aloes, and lay it in a grave. And that grave, we know, was not simply a cave, but a chrysalis, a place of transformation where suffering and death turned to healing and new life.
While I know Nicodemus may not have understood all the theological implications of that moment, I wonder what he felt when he gazed upon the crucified Christ. I wonder if he remembered Jesus’ words. I wonder if he saw in Christ his own suffering and his own healing. Did he recognize the gift Christ gave to him? Is that why he offered a gift of myrrh and aloes—a gift of himself?
To pray with a crucifix is to put ourselves into these questions and find ourselves alongside of Nicodemus at the cross. So here is one way to do that.
Step 1: Name your experience of suffering. What is it your struggling with? Is it an illness? Anxiety? Addiction? Worry for your children? Fear of something? What do you suffer from? Name it.
Step 2: Gaze upon the crucified Christ and see there your own suffering. Look upon him and say the words, “Christ is suffering from Parkinson’s.” “Christ is suffering from addiction.” “Christ is suffering from anxiety.”
Step 3: Receive the gift of God’s Son. Say the words, “God so loved me, God gave Christ to know my experience of addiction.” “God so loved me, God gave Christ to know my worry for my children.” “God so loved me, God gave Christ to know my experience of cancer.”
Step 4: Give to God your suffering. Say the words, “I give my grief to God.” “I give my worry to God.” “I give my fear to God.” “Receive my suffering as a gift of myself to you.”
In praying these prayers you’ll slowly begin to see your suffering mingle with God’s healing. It doesn’t mean your suffering will all of a sudden go away. It’s doesn’t mean your suffering will be a good thing. It means your suffering will become holy, a place where you can experience the love of God.
For God so loved the world that Christ was given to share in our suffering, that whosoever gives their suffering to Christ will have new life. Amen.