Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.
Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand. Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.
Step forward. Kneel. Kiss the cross. Perhaps rest my forehead against it.  Visualize, for a moment, the one who hangs there, whose feet hanging on the cross I kissed for so many years.
Rise. Step back.
Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.

When I kneel, it is usually a sign of grief. When I kneel, my sadness seeps into view, no longer kept at bay. 

Truthfully, I don’t kneel often. But there are moments when the need to kneel fills my body. Lent, that season of joyful sorrow set aside in the Christian year to grieve all that separates us from God, all that gets in the way of freely loving God, our neighbor, and all creation, is a time of kneeling. I kneel as we pray for one another, I kneel when I receive God’s food and drink. At the beginning of Lent, my wife and I sometimes supplement Ash Wednesday’s service with a ritual from our Eastern Orthodox past. We seek out the quiet of a side chapel and say the words of St. Ephraim the Syrian (a 4th c. theologian and hymnographer) :

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother or sister,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.

There is something to the act of kneeling and sometimes touching one’s head to the earth that viscerally connects my body to the reality of loss, injustice, unfairness; to the unavoidable suffering of our lives. Some of this suffering is the result of sin (individuals , structural, systemic), and some of it is the suffering that simply is. 

All of it is worthy of grief.

Tonight, during the reading of the story of Christ’s crucifixion, I will carry a cross forward and place it on the steps of the altar. After the reading, I will venerate the Cross.

Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.
Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand. Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.
Step forward. Kneel. Kiss the cross. Perhaps rest my forehead against it.  Visualize, for a moment, the one who hangs there, whose feet hanging on the cross I kissed for so many years.
Rise. Step back.
Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder. Kneel. Head to the floor. Stand.

While I and my congregation venerate (most will likely not venerate in the same manner as I do), these words will be sung (from the BCP, Anthem 1, p. 281):

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world.

The Veneration of the Cross is a source of awkwardness and tension for many Episcopalians. What are we bowing to? The cross is a horrible instrument of torture, meant to cause pain, suffering, and sometimes, death. The Anthem which the BCP proscribes during the veneration says this: “who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us (Anthem 3, BCP p. 282). Christians have, for centuries now, passed on a theology where death on the cross is the source of our salvation. Where death is a source of life. It is a horrible theology where life is only possible if death, the underserved death of a willing victim, is properly offered as a satisfaction for crimes committed against God and humanity. It is a payback that restores the balance of a universe where there must be a consequence for sin, and the person to whom we pay this back, or rather, to whom Jesus paid it back, is God. And so, many Episcopalians are rightly uncomfortable with venerating this object of torture. In my parish, we will not be singing the Third Anthem at all.

It isn’t the cross and the blood that is redemptive. It is what the cross reveals about God in which we take joy. So, we will repeat the refrain of the first Anthem, we “praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world.”

When I venerate, I grieve. 

When I touch my head to the ground in front of the cross, I am flooded with the awareness that here we are, again. Here, God has come into the world to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, to proclaim the freedom of captives, and we nailed him to a cross. Here, in a world where God has no hands and feet but ours (Theresa of Avila), we assassinate those who speak truths that disrupt the comfort of our privileged White lives; we insist on punishing violent crimes by violence, as if violence is a solution not a cause;  we speak of the “deserving poor” as if some people by virtue of misfortune, poor decisions, bad luck, or, more likely, relational and systematic violence against them, somehow don’t deserve clothing, shelter, food, and some space to just laugh and play. The list can go on and on.

We, when given the opportunity to walk with (and as) the one who is, in Their very character, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34.6) are all too willing to shout, “Crucify him!” The story of the Passion isn’t something that happened “back then,” it is a way of life in a world where mercy, grace, patience, love and fidelity to one another is too hard, too vulnerable, and the violence which springs from fear too readily available.

And so, when Jesus is finally on the cross,

I cross my body made in God’s image (Fingers to head, heart, shoulder to shoulder), 

I kneel. 

I touch my head to the ground that God spoke into being.

And I grieve that here we are.

Here we are again, and again, and again. 

Through the cross, we come face to face with a God so willing to be one of us that They will suffer all that it is that we do to one another, even death, on a cross.

Here we are again, and again, and again. 

In the cross, we see. We see what we do to one another. Again, and again, and again.

When I venerate, I grieve. But I also experience a moment of joy. Relieved joy, grateful joy, joy tinged with sorrow.

Because the salvation revealed to us by the cross is that God is who God has always been: merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful. And God will continue to be all those things no matter what we do to Them, to every person made in God’s image, and to the creation which is always and everywhere filled with God.

Here we are, again, and again, and again. 

We cannot keep mercy and grace, patience, love and fidelity, on a tree. For these things endure, and in them, I am joyfully grateful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s