A story is told of a woman who visits a jewellers in order to buy a necklace. ‘I’d like the one in the window,’ she said to the assistant, ‘The one with the little man on a cross.’ I have no idea whether or not this really happened. But I do know that fewer and fewer people in this country know the story of the life, death and resurrection not of ‘the little man’ but of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.
This lockdown Lent, we are reflecting afresh on God’s immeasurable, profligate love for us and our response to God. The crucified Christ asks us: ‘Guess how much I love you?’ He extends his arms on the cross and responds, ‘This much.’
The Cross of Calvary is the sign of God’s great love for each and every one of us. When I am talking about the cross – perhaps at school, or at a christening – I describe it as being like the badge or the logo of the Christian faith. The new logo for Hempsted Church of England School features a cross designed by the children. You can see it on the bottom of our weekly pew sheet and orders of service. It sits alongside the school’s new mission statement: ‘Growing Together in God’s Love.’ It’s a life task to grow in God’s love in order to be the people we are created by God to be. God loves us into being and becoming, each and every day. As we look at the cross, we struggle to understand how an instrument of torture can become a sign of love. Yet that is the nature of the gift of God’s love freely given. All we need to do is to turn to God, repent of our wrong-doings and freely receive God’s forgiveness and love. Some of us wear a cross and chain, others have a cross displayed in our homes. There are of course many crosses in our churches. These all serve as reminders not only of the gift of God’s love but also of the invitation to allow that love to shape our lives.
Ponder the story of Good Friday. Jesus dies watched by those who love him most: his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and his friend John. They are witnesses to a horror too appalling to understand. As they keep watch, they show their love for Jesus along with their grief at his suffering and death.
Jesus stands alongside us each and every day because he knows the importance of love and support. We can only carry our cross because Jesus was faithful in carrying his. And now he asks us to stand with him alongside those who suffer in the world today. In this year of pandemic, we are all asked to watch over others with the steadfast love of Christ. As Christians, we offer practical care, support and prayer to neighbours, family and friends as a reflection of God’s love that we seek to share. Perhaps we all need to be a bit braver in talking about our Christian faith and making this clear?
As always, we have the benefit of knowing how the story continues. The cross doesn’t have the last word for we live in the light of the resurrection. Horror is shot through with hope. This is why I really like the cross on Hempsted School’s logo. It was created by the children themselves and looks like a stained glass window. Like all stained glass windows, it tells a story. It shimmers with colour, light, love and hope reflecting not only something of the vibrancy of school life but also the vibrancy of the life of God.
In his book, Candles in the Dark, Rowan Williams writes about taking out his dustbin during the first lockdown and looking at the night sky. He reflects that lockdown gives us an opportunity to see buildings, people and planet in a new light. So he writes: ‘The sky is clear and what is visible in the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the steady radiance of an endless love that is focused on our healing and well-being; as sharply defined as moon and stars and beautiful Venus against the dark.’ (p6) As Williams reminds us in this simple sentence, we cannot speak of the cross without speaking of the resurrection. It is in both that we see and experience ‘the steady radiance of an endless love.’
Which brings us to today’s Gospel. Jesus is angry. He is so angered by the corruption that he finds in the Temple that he overturns the tables of the money-changers and drives out all those selling animals for sacrifice: ‘Take these things out of here!’ he cries. ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market-place.’ (John 2:16) Jewish sacrificial worship is to be abolished. Jesus has come to replace the Law.
If ever you are tempted to think that you can’t be angry with God, with life, the world, even with those you love, just think on this story. Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. Here he displays a righteous anger. His love for others does not blind him to systemic injustice and wrong-doing. In the same way, our love for God galvanises us to speak up for people and places who suffer systemic injustice of any kind. It is generally recognised that the pandemic has revealed injustice on all sorts of levels in our society. As has been observed, we may all be in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat. To take one example, it is notable that the new Church of England report, ‘Coming Home, tacking the housing crisis together ’ describes as a ‘national scandal’ the fact that eight million people in England live in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes.’ Bad housing has terrible Covid death-rate outcomes. It is interconnected with poor physical and mental health, employment, education and family breakdown. The Archbishops’ commission that produced the report sees decent housing as a matter of justice and makes specific commitments to work with stakeholders who have a part to play in solving the problem.
Many of us will seek to respond to this or other issues of injustice. Notably the call for climate justice rises ever higher in our list of priorities and concerns. As we look at the cross, we see the extent of God’s love for us. As we look at God’s world, we see where our love for God must lead.
We adore you O Christ and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Rev Canon Nikki Arthy, Rector