by Edgar M. Krentz
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of New Testament
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Paul is anything but an American!
He discards all the things he has to brag about.
He has no interest in status. All his accomplishments are garbage. And Paul grounds that in the cross.
Americans use crosses as jewelry, made of precious metal, enhanced with jewels or semi-precious stones. Or it's used simply as a decoration.
Or think of sports on TV. American sports heroes use the sign of the cross as a kind of thanksgiving gesture for a success.
Or it functions as an apotropaic device, a fancy way of saying that making the sign of the cross is an action that wards off injury. Sort of magic like.
Now all that's American.
II. From Shame to Symbol of Faith
It was no always so!
It was a mark of shame in the first century, an execution reserved for non-Romans, for criminals, for insurrectionists, for outsiders. It was, as an ancient put it, mors turpissima crudelis, "the most shameful cruel death of all."
And yet, by the third century it had become a mark identifying Christians.
Listen to some of the fathers:
Tertullian (De cor. Mil., iii), "in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross".
St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his "Catecheses" (xiii, 36) remarks: "let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in every thing; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest".
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople in the sixth century, recognized the biblical nature of the sign of the cross. He encouraged his flock, "When, therefore, you sign yourself, think of the purpose of the cross, and quench any anger and all other passions. Consider the price that has been paid for you."
The great bishop of Cappadocia, Basil, taught that the sign of the cross was a tradition that originated with the apostles, "who taught us to mark with the sign of the cross those who put their hope in the name of the Lord."
And Blessed Martin Luther urged his followers to use the sign. In his Catechism of 1529 he instructed fathers to teach their households the following: "In the morning, when you rise from bed, sign yourself with the holy cross and say, 'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.' Then pray the Lord's prayer and go about the day's business rejoicing.'" And he urged a similar ritual on going to bed.
We make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our baptism, where we confess that Christ is our Lord. Now how did that happen?
III. Paul lets us see how that happened.
Paul is, so far as we can tell, the Genesis of this development. In 1 Cor 1:18 he says "For the account of the cross is the power and the wisdom of God." He decided to know nothing except Jesus- and Jesus crucified at that.
For Paul the cross was the place to know Christ.
And that knowing was more than knowledge. We at the seminary need to hear that. Knowing facts about Jesus and the cross is not yet knowing Christ. It's more than facts about the cross—though it includes knowledge. "Knowledge puffs up," Paul says. Luther said in his time that "Dame reason is the Devil's whore." People in academic institutions are easily tempted by the Devil's whore to stress our own accomplishments: GPAs; papers graded, articles ore books published, and the like—all occasions for self-praise. I recall my oldest son's feelings as a college junior in getting a major paper back with only one comment on it: "Damn near perfect." Temptation to pride—for son and father alike.
No, knowledge of Christ is more than knowing. It is relational to God; it orients us in life; to know Christ is to know others, to be put into community. W. H. Auden in his preface to Charles Williams The Descent of the Dove wrote
This has nothing to do with the self-righteous attitude I once heard expressed in a parody of a sermon: "We are here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for I don't know."
Such knowledge is like a powerful spotlight focused on us. The cross gives us knowledge of ourselves, our little triumphs, our accomplishments. It reveals what we really are.
That can be quite humiliating.
We need to remind ourselves that grades and degrees are not the measure of our faith or our Christianity. They are the accomplishments we regard as garbage. What counts is knowing Christ.
IV. That I Might Gain Christ
Do you recall that old joke about the little boy who named his new teddy bear Gladly? When his mother expressed surprise at the name, he reminded her of the hymn he heard in church: "Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear."
That old, tired pun has a message: We should all be cross-eyed.
Paul speaks of knowing the power of his resurrection, of sharing in Christ's sufferings — "if somehow or other I might arrive at the resurrection from the dead." Strange order of events. The power of his resurrection cannot be known apart from Jesus' death. Good Friday in the necessary prelude to Easter—also in our lives. Many of us make the sign of the cross as the creed ends as a reminder that the hope of resurrection starts with the cross signed on us, not with some accomplishment of ours.
The pectoral cross, the sign of the cross, the cross-eyed attitude to life.
Being cross-eyed means seeing others via Christ's cross. There are no more important people at the foot of the cross. Paul reminded the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:11) "For the weak one is being destroyed by your knowledge, the brother or sister because of whom Christ died."— and he repeats that in Rom 14:15: "Don't destroy someone on behalf of whom Christ died. Our superior knowledge does not justify superiority over others in Christ's community.
V. Forgetting what lies behind: Re-orient your life by the cross.
Being cross-eyed changes priorities.
It's practical! Down to earth! Realistic. Put into the midst of life, realistically. Paul says that he has not already arrived. He does not have it made, is not already perfected. The effect is that he does not hold up his past, but strains into the future.
Knowing is doing, not just thinking.
I'm wearing a small pectoral cross; it's not made of silver, not set with jewels, nor an ornament. Made of nails, with sharp points. It's a reminder of Christ's cross.
We chase to become what in the cross we are already made. "As many of you as are perfect, let's think that way. Our life should be cross bound in both senses of the word. Our past lies in the cross of Christ—and so does our future."
Becky and I live in a Hyde Park town house on Ridgewood Court. It has no basement, so we never worry about a sump pump failing. We really live on the second and third floors. In our first-floor entrance hall at the foot of the stairs leading to the second story there stands a processional cross in silver, crafted in Ethiopia. I pass it every day as I leave home. Just above it is a ceramic cross from the Abtai Maria Laach in Germany, a Roman Catholic monastery. I walk under that ceramic cross many times each day. It's a reminder" that I am to be
Cross-eyed, cross-shaped, cross directed. As are we all!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.