THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
I Corinthians 1:10-17
“For Christ …sent me to proclaim the gospel…not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Last Friday afternoon Anthony Hamilton Russel, our neighbouring wine farmer, took Graham Ward, Isobel and myself up to a rocky outcrop high on his farm overlooking Hermanus and Walker Bay, to see a cross carved into a rock by Portuguese sailors probably around 1490. It is amazing to think that five hundred years ago sailors from Portugal, shipwrecked in Walker Bay or stopping to find provisions on their way up the eastern coast of Africa, climbed the mountain behind our then non-existent town to carve this beautiful Maltese cross. Presumably they were thanking God for their safe arrival in an alien land after the dangerous journey thousands of miles from home, as well as asking for God’s continued protection as they sailed further up our treacherous coast. When you stand where they carved their cross you can imagine them looking down on the Hemel en Aarde Valley and descending to drink from the Onrus river that runs through Volmoed. So from the rising of the sun in the east over that Portuguese cross to the sun’s setting over the cross on Kleinbergie to our west, and with the Southern Cross above us in the night sky, Volmoed is surrounded by the sign of the cross, the symbol of God’s redemptive and healing love.
During our Youth Leadership Training Programme one of the participants was concerned about the danger of idols in churches, referring specifically to icons and crosses. This reflects an ancient debate in the Church, for images can become a source of superstition and idolatry when misused, even or perhaps especially sacred images and icons. But there is a difference between false images, like the Golden Calf in the OT, that are destructive idols for they misrepresent God, and true images that witness to God’s liberating power and redemptive love in Christ. Icons and crosses are not idols we worship but reminders of the story of God’s love for the world.
In 313 the Emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross before going into battle, and heard a voice saying: “In this sign conquer!” Constantine won the battle and ever then the cross has become a symbol for many crusades and conquests by so-called Christian emperors and nations. The words “In this sign conquer” were even written on the insignia of army chaplains in the old SADF, making the cross a symbol to justify military power rather than love, forgiveness and reconciliation. And ironically, during of the Reformation in England, the Puritans in the Church of England took down all crosses and crucifixes and replaced them with the Coat of Arms of the King! That, too, was idolatry, symbolizing the claim of the king to be head of the church in England in the struggle for power against Pope and Emperor.
Protestants sometimes forget that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, insisted that crucifixes remain in the churches of the Reformation and recommended that Christians make the sign of the cross before they pray, a practice that Dietrich Bonhoeffer also followed. In fact, making the sign of the cross goes back to the early days of Christianity, and was notably encouraged by St. Augustine whose theology so influenced the Protestant Reformers. Today, thanks to the ecumenical movement and the work of places like the Centre for Christian Spirituality whose 30th birthday we celebrate today, all of us have benefitted from the rich spiritual traditions of Churches different from our own. Gone are the days when only Catholics appreciated the significance of a crucifix, Eastern Orthodox Christians contemplated before an icon, Quakers sat in silence to listen to the Spirit, Pentecostals spoke in tongues, or monks chanted psalms or Taizé songs. We can all draw deeply from many wells on our journey in faith. And surely, if some footballers today make the sign of the cross when they score a goal, as they often do, then it can’t be wrong for us to the sign of the cross if we believe God loves us!
There is undoubtedly a difference between superstition and faith, between turning the cross into a golden fashion trinket, and believing in the cross as the power of God’s love in Christ crucified. St. Paul was aware of this danger when he wrote to the Corinthians and said that Christ had sent him to proclaim the gospel, but not in eloquent words of worldly wisdom for that emptied the cross of Christ of its power. He knew there was a danger of subverting the message of the cross by trying to be too clever. His aim was not to convince his hearers of the truth of the gospel by sophisticated argument, but to let the message of the cross speak for itself. Which reminds me of the Scottish Presbyterian theologian and eloquent preacher of an earlier generation, James Denny, who once said that he envied the Roman Catholic priest who could hold up a crucifix before his congregation and simply say “God loves you like that!” That is the message of the cross. It does not require eloquence or long sermons to convince us of its truth. That is the whole point of having a cross in the sanctuary or, for those who do, making the sign of the cross when they pray or receive communion. They are saying: God loves us like this! We don’t know whether the Portuguese sailors also had this in mind when they carved the sign of the cross on stone, but it is testimony to our belief that “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son.”
I am glad that some hymns that we used to sing with gusto in church have been confined to the closet or waste paper bin, but I am saddened that we seldom sing others like those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, which so wondrously express the message of the cross in song. I can’t remember when last I sang Watt’s great hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” but its words come to mind as I think about that cross carved by sailors long ago on the nearby mountain top and somewhat uncharacteristically, I too will make the sign of the cross to express my faith in God’s redemptive love for the world.
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life my all.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed July 27, 2017