Saturday, 7 March 2015

Lent 3 - An Exhortation to venerate the Cross on Good Friday

Jesus “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” 

Over the last couple of weeks, Fr Tim has been preaching on Holy Week so that we can all engage more deeply when we get there. Today, we come to Good Friday, so it’s rather a shame that we didn’t get to hear the Epistle appointed for today: part of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he proclaims the Cross, which he says “is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Well, there’s no fool quite like an English fool, and there’s an old English custom about Good Friday that may well look foolish to those who aren’t in the know, and might even be a bit embarrassing for those who are. We venerate the Cross – now there’s nothing particularly English about that; it started off with relics of the True Cross in Jerusalem in the sixth century, latest – but it is the old English way that is especially funny-looking, and has an even funnier name: “creeping to the Cross.” 

Before the Reformation, the English were renowned for this Good Friday veneration: getting down on their knees at the West end of the church and shuffling all the way over the stone floors to the East just to pay homage to the image of Christ Crucified. The Reformers tried to complain, but they had trouble, because this custom quite clearly wasn’t “Popish”– it was home grown, English born and bred. And so, Henry VIII’s Ten Articles of 1539 proclaimed the Creeping to the Cross “a good and laudable thing:” “Let it be declared on Good Friday,” he proclaimed, “that creeping to the Cross and kissing the Cross 
signify humility and the memory of our redemption.” Cranmer wrote letters of protest in 1547, but the King never yielded, and in our modern Church of England liturgies, our bishops have officially restored to the Cross its due veneration. 

We have enough trouble these days getting Anglicans on their knees to pray static, let alone shuffling along on them for a hundred metres, but that is not the only way to signify our humility and remember our redemption when the Cross is unveiled at the Good Friday liturgy. You can come and stand or kneel before it. You can stay where you are and watch and pray. You can genuflect and kiss the feet of the image of our Saviour. You can come out and simply bow. There are many ways. OK, it may make you feel self-conscious and silly. Our Lord was spat at dressed in purple and a crown of thorns. 

The Cross has two axes, vertical and horizontal. The horizontal is God’s work throughout creation in the Holy Spirit. The vertical signifies that God emptied Himself from heaven into creation: the Word was made flesh. The death of Jesus is where these two axes meet. And so we venerate the wooden Cross 
because it was on real, created wood that God died and breathed out His Spirit for the salvation of the world. We make the sign of the Cross for the same reason – and it is good to see Evangelical Christians, not just Catholics, increasingly reclaiming this sign for themselves. It is the the ultimate metamorphosis of sword to ploughshare, the sign by which God takes something made for evil and makes it good, as he takes us who are sinful and makes us good, and takes that evil Friday and makes it Good Friday. It is the reason we are here. It is human folly, but it is the power of God. 

It is also the only reason, why we have a public holiday that day: so there is absolutely no excuse not to be in church.

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