by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
Trying to find relationships between the thirty-fifth birthday of Christ Seminary-Seminex and yesterday's readings seemed altogether fruitless until I discovered that one verse from the appointed Gospel might have been added after Mark's composition. It's that slightly troublesome warning from Jesus who tells the leper to show himself to the priests and complete all the other usual rituals. Some say the warning was inserted later as an entre for the young church to the thorny issues of old rules versus fresh Gospel.
Indeed, that's the subject of Galatians with Paul concluding that the only thing that counts is a new creation, made possible by glorying in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lest you think the fuss over old rules/fresh Gospel passé, be advised that the new ELCA statement on sex arrives in two days.
But, back to Galatians. How does one glory in the cross of Christ? One might argue that the cross glories in us, especially when the power of Christ's death and resurrection gets manifested, gets writ large-as they say, in the witness of Christ's followers.
What I am about to say I say as a martyr-in its root sense, that is, as a witness to the power of the cross in a most unlikely group of people; people who didn't seek such a role, nor did they or do they glory in it (though they should not have been surprised that God answered a prayer they often spoke: grant that we may hear your word, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it...).
Yet, I am really only the mouthpiece of such a witness. The real witness here is this cross. It moves. It gets around. It has been carried to many places-in liturgical parlance we refer to those places as stations. In the process this cross has seen and heard much. Let me tell you about some of the stations of this cross-which we shall name Harold.
Harold, because Harold Martin, a Chicago artist, fashioned this cross (minus its rectangular backing). That was in 1968. Harold was made for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where during the early 60's its 450 plus students and faculty worshiped in a chapel/auditorium, the east wall of which could be magically reversed to turn chapel into auditorium. The only problem was that the altar was attached to the magic wall, leaving behind no possibility for rigging a freestanding altar. Freestanding altars in those days were badges of ecclesiastical stylishness. The challenge was met as the mood of the 1962 Vatican liturgical reforms prevailed, yielding to this creative group a collapsible altar and a borrowed processional cross.
Those were the days of "Sons of God" and "And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love," but also of intercessions spoken by the people from the midst, and even more reckless experiments like adding a lesson from the morning's newspaper to the Sunday readings. One day, while I was bemoaning the lack of our own processional cross, my former internship supervisor, A.R. Kretzmann who was on campus for a meeting of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, offered to remedy the situation. At his own expense he commissioned Harold Martin to construct this cross from the same cloisonné materials the artist used extensively for St. Luke Church on Belmont. The cross was delivered in fall of 1968. The very next year John Tietjen was elected president of Concordia Seminary and Jacob Preuss president of the LCMS.
Harold here was carried now and then but chiefly stood and observed worshiping seminarians excitedly trying out new materials leaking from the work desks of the LBW framers. These worshipers were young men who coming out of the dark and dank corridors of ossified church life, eagerly embraced Biblical studies, all the while looking in the distance towards Lutheran unity, and basking in the Gospel being preached to them. That's what Harold saw and heard.
Trouble was brewing, even though this seminary seemed to be at the top of its game. The new synodical administration was seeking to impose a fundamentalist agenda on the church. Sympathizers began to accuse the faculty and its president of false doctrine. One of the sympathizers from within the faculty itself, playing into the hand of the synod president, asked for a Fact Finding Committee to interview each of the faculty members. That inquisition took place during the fall of 1970.
Personally, I was losing interest in the proceedings because I was scheduled for a study leave fall of 1971-1973. During those years the drama unfolded further with witch-hunts, threats, and countless meetings. On the very same day I was writing my Ph. D. Exams, July 12, 1973, the synod visibly began to disintegrate at its New Orleans assembly. It became very clear that the actions against the faculty were a prelude leading to the dismissal of John Tietjen for failure to keep his faculty in line. In fact, the seminary board was looking to suspend him at its December meeting in 1973, shortly after I returned to campus. And here is where Harold enters the picture yet again.
On December 13, 1973 Arthur Carl Piepkorn, beloved and esteemed professor, mentor and embodiment of all that was good and right about Concordia Seminary died suddenly of an heart attack. Tietjen's suspension was postponed while the community gathered to mourn. Students arranged an all night vigil at his casket, and it was there that Harold stood too, hearing their prayers at 15-minute intervals, prodding them in the late night hours to ponder what it means finally to glory in the cross, even without any seeming semblance of hope for a darkening future.
It was lonely for Harold once the students left for Christmas break. But not for long. Returning on January 4, they and we braced ourselves for what seemed inevitable. On January 20, 1974 the Board suspended John Tietjen for harboring false doctrine within his faculty and for other charges as well. The very next day, after chapel, Harold watched as the students, easily 90% of them, met to determine next steps. They declared a moratorium on classes. Discussions were polite, varied, sometimes contrary, but on one issue there was unanimity: if false doctrine was being taught the students wanted to know by whom, but until then no classes. Harold would tell you that he was observing seminarians suddenly grasping what it means to live the cross, to be buried with Christ.
Now Harold began to move a lot-often appearing at this assembly or that, at this venue or that. When supporters of the faculty and student majorities met off campus Harold was likely there too. Tensions mounted. The interim president together with his board demanded that the faculty return to the classroom by February 18, for they had earlier declared themselves in solidarity with the students. On that day, faculty and spouses met, joined hands and at the appointed hour sang "The church's one foundation" as their response to the demand.
While Harold was not there for that tear-filled moment, he was only yards away and there in Spirit. One day later the students decided to join the faculty by exiting the campus to continue their education at St. Louis University. Weather issues suggested that Harold not lead the procession down the hill to a new location, but Harold soon found himself in DuBuorg Chapel, part of the facilities lent by St. Louis University to the seminary in exile. Sometimes Harold led the community to the Common Room, there presiding over meetings, lunch, library work or students hanging out.
If there was a thing that carried this new community and its dynamics and focus, it was Harold. You want to know the essence of Seminex? Look at Harold. Wherever Harold was, there was Seminex. In a strange land Harold proclaimed home. A cross-one side with a corpus, the other empty, the icon of Christ's death and resurrection.
Graduation at Concordia was always outdoors in the quad. What to do for May 1974? Rent the quad at neighboring Washington University. At least 1000 people attended, the procession of 120 plus graduates led by Harold. As it occupied the station on the dais Harold watched as graduating seniors received their diplomas from Wesley Fuerst, then dean of LSTC. Not yet accredited, Seminex welcomed LSTC's offer to insure the validity of the degrees. From that point on Harold has watched thousands of graduates being sent out in the power of the cross.
Harold returned to his hometown in 1983. Here it was not always easy to share the icon task with another cross that marked LSTC's identity. Sometimes Harold stayed in the sacristy. But mostly it was on the move, now to St. Thomas, now to Rockefeller-always reminding those in sight that even from his birth the cross is larger than denominations.
The cross is heavier now-a noticeable sign of the weightiness of God's story it transports. By 2003 it became clear that with many moves Harold suffered from drooping arms and other injuries. So for the new chapel Harold was remounted to carry on its martyrdom-its witness.
Here one is likely to see it standing at the south window, inches from the outdoors, visible sometimes from the outside. Harold is used to that. At its last location in St. Louis, the Seminex chapel had two outside walls of floor to ceiling windows at street level on the corner of Grand and Washington. The corner was a stop for at least two public bus lines. Harold stood inches from city people waiting for their bus, separated only by glass, observing at one and the same time people in need of the power Harold could channel, and people being fed with the One who graciously gives such power and life.
Though I am not one to kiss furniture or holy objects, this cross I can kiss, for, far from being just a symbol, it carries in a mystic way the life I have in Jesus Christ.
Icons are about being. They say that when it comes to an icon, the mystery enacted and the mystery depicted are one.
When all is said, Harold is in fact a herald. This cross invites you and me to be better pilgrims, to know nothing except the cross, to hope in the whole cross, in Christ's death and in his resurrection-for the two are one, and it invites us to willingly follow it wherever it leads.
Let the witness of this cross strengthen your purpose, clear your vision, and sustain your hope.
Mark 1:40-45, Gal. 6:14-16