September 14th is Holy Cross Day. Like many church calendar days it has uncomfortable entanglements with legends and claims that go beyond the Gospel message, and the content of prayers and commemorations vary across Christian traditions.
That said, the cross of Christ should always draw our attention, and not as a mere symbol of a religion,
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 1:17)
The cross is full of power, he says. Verses like that can get us into the shadowy border of faith and magic, of course. Yet our contemporary way of thinking does empty the cross of its own, distinct power, turning it into a mere symbol to support this or that cause or claim. It becomes one more noise maker in our din of conflicting opinions proclaimed as life and death truths.
Sometimes other cultures can help us reconnect with what the Spirit reveals through the Bible. The late missionary Marc Nikkel shared this report from Africa,
In April (1997) Kakuma (a refugee camp in Kenya, extended “home” to many displaced persons from Sudan and South Sudan) was hit by an epidemic of cholera, the result of poor hygiene due in part to contaminated water containers. While official reports state that some twenty people died, several NGO (non-government organizations) staff and educated refugees vow that over a hundred expired during a five-week period. Diagnosis of the disease and measures to stem its spread were slow in coming, with at least four deaths daily over several weeks. As camp officials struggled to put health measures in place, refugees became increasingly frightened, and Kakuma’s ECS (Episcopal Church of the Sudan) women assumed spiritual authority.
The women report how, one day in May, they banded together in a force of some 520 to lay siege against the powers of death. Carrying their hand-held crosses, they marched around Kakuma’s main hospital compound where some 108 people were understood to lie ill with cholera. Praying and singing they converged at the heart of the complex. There, with the permission of hospital staff, they planted a long, wooden cross in the earth and called on God to restore life to the dying. This, the cross of Christ, they likened to the bronze serpent erected by Moses in the desert, which brought healing to all the afflicted who looked on it (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15). Indeed, as they narrate events, divine grace was imparted, the plague of cholera ceased from that day, and all 108 returned to health.
This was the first in a series of marches initiated by the ECS women in which they seek to supplement apparently impotent hospital care with initiatives of the spirit and transcend their sense of helplessness through united action. Because these events are conducted in the Jieng language, non-Sudanese NGO staff have sometimes felt threatened by them, interpreting them as aggressive, politically styled demonstrations. Undeniably, resolute masses of marching women, singing buoyantly, crosses thrusting in rhythm, have a military flavor. For them, however, their processions are literal battles of the spirit in which they are supplanting the powers of death and oppression, as a composition they sang reveals,
“We are carrying burdens that oppress us; Great Lord of peace help us!
“We bear loads that lead us astray (from your way): Great Lord of peace help us!
“We accuse the enemy in your presence.
“Great Lord who has power, come near and help us, Christ help us upon the earth.
“O Protector against evil, our Helper O Father. Christ help us!
“The suffering you suffered shows us how to live upon the earth.
“Come near and help us, Christ our Helper, our Father upon the earth!”
To recent marches here in the U.S., in which flags symbolizing enslavement and genocide were waved as tokens of freedom; masks were worn as if able to conceal the free floating juvenile anger animating violent actions, or costumes resembling body parts were donned to celebrate the self, the demonstration in Kakuna, neither vilifying nor exalting any group on earth but seeking the well being of those who suffered, contrasts the power of the cross of Christ.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (Collect for Holy Cross Day, Book of Common Prayer U.S. 1979)