Last year was an incredibly poignant Ash Wednesday. As much as it is our tendency to allow things to fade into the background of our awareness, it seems to me that reprising this post is important to help us remember who we are. Christians are still being persecuted and dying everyday in the Middle East. They trust in the Cross of Christ. In our own "first world" friends and relatives struggle with the problems of illness, meaninglessness, bereavement and all the little and big forms of death which touch any human life. They too trust in the Cross and hope to find at the end of Lent that they are better prepared to celebrate it as the victory of God's mercy in a violent and often death-driven world. I hope reprising this post is helpful in moving us toward that festive day.
[Four] years ago I wrote an article here supporting the idea that we Christians are People of the Cross. (cf., We Are People of the Cross). I felt strongly about my disagreement with Sister Joan Chittester's point --- though I understood what she was focusing on and completely empathized with that. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that the importance of that label would be underscored in blood and martyrdom in the way that occurred just three days ago. On that day ISIS took 21 Coptic Christians out to the beach somewhere along the Mediterranean and beheaded them for being "People of the Cross" and People of the illusion of the Cross. We have all seen the pictures: the long row of young men in orange jump suits, each accompanied by his murderer dressed in black and masked from identification; the ISIS member brandishing his knife towards the camera; the headless torso lying in a pool of blood on the sand; the sea turned red with the blood, bodies, and separated heads of these martyrs.
|Families of Martyred Christians in Egypt|
Today, on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we will each have a cross traced on our own forehead in ashes and this cross will be visible for at least several hours as we move through our world identified as believers in either the greatest foolishness or the greatest wisdom the world has ever known. Remember, it was Paul, the last and in some ways, the greatest Apostle who said, "If Christ is not raised from the dead then we are the greatest fools of all!" ISIS is certainly not the first to claim the cross was the symbol of an illusion! They will not be the last to suggest Christians are deluded in their faith. But we know Christ crucified and risen, we know him intimately since through him our lives have been changed in ways only the Living God and certainly no mere illusion (or delusion) could do.
I have no doubt that ISIS believes the orange jumpsuits and beheadings are somehow degrading, scandalous, and shameful. (They, at the very least, literally represent a complete loss of face and the taking away of honor. In honor-shame cultures honor resides especially in the head.) Perhaps they see these in somewhat the same way the cross was perceived in Jesus' day. I am sure they believe death has forever separated these Christians from God's love. But in this case orange is the new white --- the white garment of men and women who have been baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection. The white garment of witnesses, martyrs, who know that our God loves us and all of creation with an everlasting love from which no guilt, no sin, no shame, no death, can separate us. The sign of that love, a love which enters into the godless depths of our own terrible alienation and shame in order to bring us back "home" to ourselves and our God is the cross of Christ. We are People of the Cross --- marked by both the world's guilt and shame and the righteousness and hope of God's vindication.
|Coptic Tattoos; Marked as People of the Cross|
Today we will wear that sign both proudly and humbly, joyfully and in grief at our renewed recognition of all it can mean in a broken and often savage world; once again we wear that sign on our very flesh as we renew our commitment to repent and believe in the unconquerable Love-in-act made real for us in the depths of human shame and shamefulness on and through the cross of Christ. Today as we renew our own professions and identities as People of the Cross, we especially remember these martyrs, these brothers in the faith. They died with Christ's name on their lips; may our own lives similarly proclaim him and the God he revealed.