Lift high the cross | Choral Evensong on Palm Sunday

  • Preacher

    The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark

The Dean's first Holy Week address, given at Evensong on Sunday 2 April.

In the Harvard Chapel to the right of the altar is a cross.  If you step forward and look closely at it you’ll see that it’s more than a cross, it’s a complex interweaving of a number of things.  Stand there long enough, follow the lines and you’ll gradually see a number of them appear – nails, a robe, some dice, a whip, a ladder.  It’s an amazing piece of work, produced by George Pace’s studio when he was architect here.

It was designed not to go on the wall but on the back of the chair the president sits in at the Eucharist.  In the back of the chair are large fixings for this cross.  The problem was that no one quite worked out the practicalities – the cross weighs so much that when the president stood up the chair fell backwards.  So, it’s on the wall.

But what it’s properly called is the vexillum. It harks back to Roman times.  At the end of a campaign, as the troops with their commanders returned victorious, there was a parade and the trophies of war were carried for all to see.  If you go to Rome and head up into the Forum from the Colosseum you come to the Arch of Titus and if you look at that you will see a vexillum being carried along with the plundered treasures, including the objects taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, the great Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, amongst them. 

For Christians the trophies are what we call the instruments of the passion.  You’ll find them in many churches and you can find them in other places here, on the shields above the two gateways from the choir aisles into the choir itself, at the high altar.  In the church where I was brought up the medieval church building had been enriched by the Victorians, by the Tractarians and by their successors, with lovely bits and pieces and many of those bits and pieces were decorated with ladders and hammers and sponges and nails and cockerels and whips.  As a child it meant nothing to me, all these carvings in the screens, all this engraving on the chalices, all these things embroidered onto the vestments.

It all meant nothing until we were at confirmation classes in our vicar’s study and then we were able to ask the questions that we’d always wanted to ask and had never dared to.  What are all those things, why are they there, why is our church decorated with ladders and hammers and nails.  And the priest told us that these are the instruments of the passion, those things that were used in the killing of Jesus.  To us they seemed strange things to us to be decorating a church with.  But we were only eleven so what did we know!

But Christians have always revered these things.  After the events of the first Holy Week and Easter, Christians sought out the things associated with Jesus in order to possess them, Veronica’s cloth, the crown of thorns, the shroud the body was laid in and of course, above anything else, the cross on which Jesus died.

In his book ‘Helena’ Evelyn Waugh gives a fictionalised version of the story of this English woman who becomes one of the principal people involved in seeking out, not just the holy sites but the holy things and above all the true cross.  In the book Helena says

‘Where is the cross anyway? The only one.  The real one.  It must be somewhere.  Wood doesn’t just melt like snow’.

And through a dream and a miraculous healing she eventually finds it – the real, the true cross.

But why bother with things?  Aren’t they just distractions from the truth?  Haven’t they just provided opportunities to ridicule the church, to make us look stupid and ignorant?  Haven’t they too often become objects of idolatry, of false devotion that have distracted us from God, the equivalent of the golden calf for the Hebrews.  As King Louis IXth mounted the steps behind the altar in Sainte Chappelle on the Isle de la Citie in Paris in order to expose to his court the crown of the thorns, he was doing that not just out of deep piety, which I’m sure was there, but also as a sign of the power of his own kingship and position.  This crown he had in his hands was more powerful than the crown he wore on his head.

And the same was true for communities that owned the shroud, the veil, or anything else that was associated with Jesus.

Why do we bother with things?  I suppose that the simple answer is that these things provide the closest contact in that physical sense that we can have with Jesus.  Yes, of course, in relationship we are closer to Jesus than any thing could bring us, any object, any instrument of his passion.  And yet there’s something about the physical, about what we can see and touch that remains immensely powerful.

In the final scene of that amazing and controversial film ‘Brokeback Mountain’, Ennis, one of the two main characters, opens the door of his wardrobe and hanging on the back of the door is Jack’s check shirt.  Ennis had taken it from Jack’s room in his parents’ house when he paid them a visit after Jack had been killed in a homophobic attack.  Now he takes the shirt from the door and smells it and hugs it and weeps over it.  It is the closest that he can get in that physical way to the man he loved.  He has nothing more of Jack to cling to – just the memories and the shirt - and the shirt is tangible.

And we are just the same.  We’re physical beings and ours is an incarnational faith.  The fact of the matter is that in Jesus, God engages with the physical world, God enters the physical world, God takes flesh and lives as one of us.  And as God raises our status to that of divinity - ‘God became man that man might become God’ to paraphrase St Athanasius on his work on ‘The Incarnation’ - so in a sense the material also becomes imbued with the possibility of God, of the divine and that’s where our sacramental theology comes into play.

You see the thing is that nothing is inherently bad.  The things that we’ll be thinking about together this week, the things that were used to kill Jesus, they weren’t bad in themselves.  A ladder isn’t bad, neither are nails, neither is wood.  But the purpose to which they’re put can be bad.

They’re just like you and me.  No one is inherently bad despite what some Christians would have us believe.  Your gender, your colour, your sexuality don’t make you any better or any worse than anyone else.  They’re givens, they just are, that’s who you are.  What you do with that nature of yours, that God given nature of yours, that God loved nature of yours, is what makes the difference.

Take today’s instrument – the palm, the branch of palm, the branch of olive.  Some of my more liberal friends when they were having children decided on a clear toy policy – no gender specific toys and no violent toys.  But it was interesting to see their children getting a stick and using it as a weapon, or pretending they had a gun in their hand.  How many choristers have I seen using the palm cross they’ve just been given and angelically walked with in procession, a few moments later used as a sword in the vestry in some great pretence at a game of fencing.

The problem is with us, not with the things themselves.

As the news got out that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem the crowds began to head out of the city to greet him on the road.  There was a sense of excitement about the place.  News travelled fast and people were anxious to see this much talked of teacher and healer and so they crowded the streets and the gates in order to get the best vantage place.

And as he approached the excitement became such that palm fronds were cut from trees and olive branches gathered and strewn before him and coats and cloaks cast on the ground to create a triumphal carpet for Jesus to ride over.

His entry into Jerusalem was truly as a king of peace, riding on a donkey, not on a horse, not coming as a warrior but as one who would bring peace and the branches and the clothes provided a wonderful affirmation of who this was.  ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ shout the crowd in St John’s version of the story of Palm Sunday. 

This week won’t just be about things though.  They are only starting points because what is never carved or engraved in our churches are you and me and there’s a sense in which we too are playing our role as instruments of the passion.  What part do I play in this drama, this life changing, world changing drama that we will see re-enacted, represented before us this week?  Well, the answer to that may emerge as we engage with what happens to Jesus.

Today though it’s for us to simply welcome the one who comes, and to take what we have to hand to make that arrival, to make that entry as wonderful as it can possibly be – and as the Lord passes by we sense his presence and know that the peace he will bring will change our lives.