God’s Obscure Burial

Today a solemn procession carrying the relic of the Cross of Christ entered the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, almost seventeen centuries ago.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The site of our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection had been covered over by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who hated Judaism and Christianity. He had built a pagan shrine on the site.

But the Cross, as well as the tomb of Christ, remained buried underground for almost two hundred years. The Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where the holy sites were located. We can safely say that, from the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday on, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at these locations.

So we can keep today’s feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of the Christian faithful through all the tumults of history. And our forefathers and foremothers in faith have been faithful not necessarily because they had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue. The main reason, though, is that it’s all true. All of it has been remembered faithfully and handed down to us because it’s true.

Let’s look at it this way. A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city which the Romans thought of as an outpost in Barbaria. If CNN had been reporting world events at the time, the chances of this execution getting mentioned by Wolf Blitzer was zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family, His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs. The chances that the location of this grave would have been recorded in any written form: zero.

In other words, it is hard to imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this man.

Except for one thing: He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Cross

This past weekend proved to be quite emotional.

Dick Enberg called his last professional tennis match.

–The Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang Sarah McLachlan a cappella.

–The Washington Redskins soundly defeated the New York Giants!

But when the first cool breezes of fall begin to caress our faces, our thoughts must run to the immemorial September 14 commemoration of the cross of Christ…

The ancient Romans used crosses to execute low-life criminals of the barbarian races. The criminals often hung for days on crosses along highways. The Roman Empire made a statement this way: We will do what we need to do to maintain order.

Cicero was a philosopher and statesman of ancient Rome. He taught that a polite person should not even mention the word “cross.” Well-bred citizens did not refer to such ghastly business in pleasant conversation.

But something changed. Constantine marched toward Rome in the fall of AD 312 to unseat the tyrannical emperor Maxentius. Constantine raised his eyes to heaven to pray for help from the true God, and He received a vision. He saw a cross in the sky and heard these words: ‘In this sign, you will conquer.’

The cross had been a brutal, unmentionable means by which the Romans conquered disorder and rebellion among the nations they subjugated. But the Son of God turned the cross into something else. Christ committed no crime; He never rebelled against order and truth. But the sentence for sin fell upon Him, and He lovingly embraced it for the sake of the salvation of the world.

So now the cross signifies not death but life. If signifies not crime and punishment but mercy and kindness. Now, we do not shy away from mentioning the cross, or invoking it. The cross is not foreign to polite society. Rather, the sign of the cross adorns the lives of Christian people in every possible way.

But we owe it to ourselves to meditate frequently on the fact that the shameful cross of Cicero and the victorious cross of Constantine are not two different things, but the same thing–transformed from ugliness to beauty by the suffering of Christ.

Constantine’s mother Helen sought and found in the ruins of Jerusalem the wood of the cross on which the Lord had been crucified. This same holy relic was defended in battle by the Emperor Heraclius three hundred years later, when the Persians attacked the Holy Land.

September 14 commemorates all these events, which link us with the true cross. The cross of beauty can be none other than the cross on which Christ suffered at the brutal hands of the ancient Romans. We exult the glorious cross because the Savior of the world hung in agony on it for us.