We cannot begin to properly speak of the ‘Christ of God’, from today’s gospel, without reference to the Cross. Indeed if we are to follow Jesus we can only do so if we are willing to take up the cross ourselves. It is only by losing ourselves, our life, in the cross that we will be able to save it says Jesus.
The sign and symbol of the Cross from the 3rd century became the Church’s most dominant and potent symbol.
It began to permeate everything from the classic style of church buildings, in cruciform shape, to making the sign of the cross a number of times in the mass. We use the cross as a sign of blessing, to ward off evil and every time we enter the church with holy water to remind ourselves of our baptism in which we died with Christ and rose with him into new life in the kingdom of God.
The Cross, an instrument of torture, in so many ways, is a bizarre symbol to represent a loving God. Yet the Cross is at its most powerful when we understand that the God made flesh choses to embrace this cruel form of torture and transform it into the means of our salvation.
All the temple cultic sacrifices anticipate and are fulfilled when the Lord of glory hangs on the cross and reveals the triumph of his sacrificial love that overcomes the power of sin and death.
Golgotha becomes the means of reconciliation for lost, alienated humanity with God the source and originator of our life, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being”. It is only because of this that Friday in Holy Week can be called Good Friday and not Tragic Friday.
Our crucified Lord reminds us of the price that has been paid to free us from sin and death. Christians have thus been drawn to contemplate the Cross at times of penitential sorrow and times of great suffering. Because of Christ, the Cross has the power to bring meaning out of chaos and life out of death.
This sign of the Cross, as the sign of the Christian, the follower of Christ, is understood by much of the non-Christian world to. The sign of the Cross outside of a building identifies it as a Christian church to believers and non-believers alike. It is why ISIS crucified some young Christian men and why work colleagues, in the north of England, tied a young Roman Catholic to a cross and ridiculed him. Their very attempt to show dominant power over Christianity and it followers by ridiculing and crucifying sows the seed for their own defeat and self-destruction. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church and the triumphant witness of Christ crucified and enthroned in glory.
It is no real surprise then that our church buildings are orientated in the manner that they are. The majority of churches have traditionally had the image of Christ seated in triumph on the back wall of the sanctuary or apse. It reminds us that Christ came from glory and returned to sit in glory after his earthly ministry was complete. In our worship we are drawn heavenward so that where he has gone we might go also. However this “seated in glory” is precisely placed in the sanctuary so that we do not lose or separate his glory from the altar of sacrifice, the crucifix and his sacramental presence in the tabernacle. This counter balances our understanding of Christ’s glory in its fullness with the throne of the Cross and altar of sacrifice.
We deliberately orientate our focus towards the sanctuary so that we might not lose sight of whom it is we are called to, of whom it is we receive and to whom we are to witness and the mode of witness we are to follow as we are sent out into the world.
The role of the priest is to aid, enable and lead, in the power of the Spirit, the great sacrificial mystery of our salvation in the sacrament of the mass. Incarnational theology contained in persona Christi, the priest in the person of Christ, is indeed revealed in the proclaiming and preaching of the word but predominately as Christ as priest and victim offering the holy sacrifice of the mass to God the Father. An over emphasis of Christ in the midst of his people in the priest can lead to a subtle transfer of focus away from the sacrifice of the mass to the individual priest himself who then feels he has to entertain and seek mans approval – the priest moving up and down the body of the church on a Segway is a extreme example of what can happen.
Priests are also not an alien race, or angels sent from heaven, although an easy mistake to make. Priests are of the people, from the people and equally suffer with the struggle of sin and new birth into heavenly glory. The Priest therefore also needs to look towards the beautiful and complex interrelationship between Christ enthroned in glory, the altar of sacrifice, the crucified Christ and his sacramental presence, as he celebrates, for his own salvation as well as that of the people.
This is why Cardinal Sarah, appointed by Pope Francis to led the reform of the reform of the liturgy, as head of the Congregation of Divine Worship and Sacramental Discipline, has spoken so strongly about the need for Priests to celebrate mass ad orientem, facing East, from the offertory onwards, at least, to be the norm and not the exception.
There is a sea change taking place, leading to a rebalancing of how we celebrate mass and how we are able to bear witness to the joy of the gospel in our every day lives to God’s greater glory and humanities salvation. This process may take 50 years to create a new norm in the celebration of mass and a more dynamic mission to the world but I intend, as a act of obedience, to make ad orientem the norm at 4pm mass from today onwards. I only hope that you feel that you are able to make this journey with me.