A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17
When I preached at my installation as Dean last Sunday I said that the default subject of my sermons every September was ‘What I Did in My Holiday’. I am, I hope, a man of my word, so this sermon will be no exception. I am going to refer again to my recent holiday in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But I hope I’m going to do so with cause (as lawyers say).
With cause because Holy Cross Day has its origins in Jerusalem. More precisely, it has its origins in the alleged finding there of Christ’s True Cross by the Byzantine Empress Helena. In the year 326, we are told, the Empress visited the Holy Land and ordered the demolition of the Roman temple that had been built on the very spot where Jesus had died. In a cave underneath it she discovered the very cross upon which he had been crucified. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the site and consecrated on this day nine years later.
When you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today you can enter the cave, now a chapel, where Helena made her discovery. I did so early in the morning just a fortnight ago. Bypassing the Ethiopian monk who was checking his emails on his phone I made my way to the east end of the church and descended first to a beautiful crypt where Armenian Christians worship, and then to the Chapel of St Helena. It is carved out of the bedrock of the Judean hillside. In one corner candles burn, marking the place where the True Cross had been concealed.
The story is unquestionably open to historical challenge, but what is unquestionable is the massive volume of rock that bears down upon the chapel. When we look above our heads here we see soaring columns, arches and vaulting. There I saw none of those ingenious architectural devices that together keep the Cathedral’s roof suspended above our heads. There I saw just a sheer bulk of hanging stone. St Helena’s Chapel somehow bears all that weight. It holds it aloft and keeps it from crashing down upon the head of the worshipper.
It’s not a bad analogy for what we celebrate when we celebrate Holy Cross Day. For ultimately this feast is not about an ancient length of timber, or about the story of its discovery in a far-off cave. It’s about the weight that that ancient length of timber bore: the weight of Jesus of Nazareth; the weight of a blameless life freely given; the weight of a supreme gift of love; the weight of the Saviour of the world.
That’s what we celebrate: the weight that the cross bore, and the weight that Jesus bore. A huge bulk of human sin took him to the cross – the anger, hate and fear of those who refused to understand him, who were threatened by him, and who turned against him. On the cross Jesus took all that murderous rage on himself. He allowed it to crash down upon him, so that it might not crash down upon us.
In St Helena’s Chapel the rock is held above those who light their candles and say their prayers beneath. The Cross holds the destroying weight. It allows us to live.
Those of you who have had the misfortune of breaking a bone will know that one of the signs of recovery is when the doctors allow the broken limb to bear weight. When something is “weight-bearing” then it means that health and strength are returning and that life can flow and flourish again. Sitting in St Helena’s Chapel a fortnight ago I marvelled at the vast bulk poised above my head. It’s as though the Holy Cross is truly weight-bearing. So we can be hopeful. Amen.