Just over a year ago, I mentioned to some leaders in our church family that I would really love to have a larger wooden cross to use in our Holy Week worship services. Like many churches, we had one that had been made from the carcass of some prior year’s Christmas tree, but I wanted something sturdier, more substantial, more lifelike.
I realized the irony as soon as the word departed my lips. How lifelike should an instrument of death be?
Nevertheless, our worship committee chairperson Donna Fowlkes assigned herself a mission, and a few days later, her husband Tom brought a sturdy, straight, weathered trunk of a cedar tree that was fifteen feet tall.
One afternoon last spring, I cut it into lengths of nine and six feet, carefully measured and cut notches, and finally joined the two sections together with the most rustic looking coconut twine I could find.
We had a large, intimidating old rugged cross that served beautifully as the focal point for our Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services. Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we stapled chicken wire around that old rugged cross, and our congregation covered almost every inch of 9 by 6 ruggedness with fresh flowers and greenery. It was transformed into a thing of beauty.
Then, when the flowers had wilted after a few days on display in front of our church building, the cross returned to its storage place in the attic . . .
. . . until yesterday, when I brought the cross out of the attic for the annual Maundy Thursday service. Since I’m a fairly large (and stubborn) man, I didn’t ask anyone to help. I wrestled the cross through the attic to the top of the stairs easily enough, but as I started down the four flights of stairs, I began to notice how unbalanced and unwieldy a 9 by 6 cedar cross can be.
At one point, I stumbled a bit under its weight.
Whoa. That was a profound moment.
As I continued my journey down the stairs and into the chapel, I became increasingly aware of all the stems and protrusions that remained on the trunk where limbs had once grown. Again, I noted the irony as I concentrated not to rip my clothes on this truly rugged cross.
Finally, as I moved the cross into position in the chapel, my hands felt the remaining wood staples and–worse yet–staple fragments that had secured last year’s chicken wire. Out of frustration and disgust, I said aloud to myself, “Someone’s going to get hurt on this thing!”
I sat there on the chapel floor with heavy pliers in one hand and a hammer in the other to remove or drive flush all the staples and pieces I could find in that rugged trunk. As I literally cleaned up the cross, I prayed that I wouldn’t clean it up figuratively in my ministry.
That’s a real temptation, though, isn’t it?
We seek the empty tomb, but prefer to bypass the agonizing cross.
We cherish the cross as a symbol of victory, overlooking that it was for Jesus an instrument of suffering and death. It becomes a brass or golden symbol, shiny and smooth–in other words, the kind of cross that doesn’t hurt anyone.
Hundreds of people will gather in our church the day after tomorrow to celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. A few dozen gathered today at noon to remember his suffering. I’m not being critical. I’m just restating that the church suffers from cross avoidance. Maybe it just hurts too much.
As I carried that cross down the steps yesterday, a stray staple dug into my left hand, just below my index finger. It drew blood and left a mark.
I’m glad and grateful for that reminder that someone could get hurt on that rugged cross.
My heart overflows this Good Friday with gratitude for my Lord Jesus Christ, who not only hurt, but suffered, agonized, and ultimately died on a larger, heavier, more burdensome and sinister cross.
May I never clean up that cross.