The Sign and Suffering of the Sacred Cross

The Feast of Holy Cross Day this week (14 September) is an opportunity to consider the irony and paradox of the Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In contrast to the sober penitence of Holy Week, this festival day revels in the victory of the Cross as the way and means by which our Lord Jesus has triumphed over sin, trampled death beneath His feet, and trodden Satan under His bruised heel. Of course, all of that is true on Good Friday, as well, but our celebration of the victory is tempered in that case by the somber consideration of His sufferings for our sins.

It is by the preaching of the Cross that the nations are called to repentance and to faith in the Lord’s forgiveness of sins. In this, too, there is irony and paradox, for the same Cross both kills and makes alive, it wounds in order to heal. And this is the Cross that we receive and are signed with in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, marking us as those redeemed by Christ the Crucified.

The Cross is not only a once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated historical event, though it certainly is that in respect to our Atonement and Redemption by the Sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The Cross also marks and characterizes the Church on earth and the entire Christian faith and life in this world, even as we wait upon the Lord in the hope of the Resurrection. That which we are given to bear and suffer as Christians in this body and life belongs to the theology of the Cross, which is the mysterious way that God hides Himself – in order to reveal Himself to all of us poor sinners. He comes to us, manifests Himself, and deals with us in exactly the opposite way we would expect, not in raw power and overwhelming glory, but in His voluntary suffering for the sake of sinners. And we, in turn, are conformed to His Image and glorified with Him by the bearing of His Cross and the sharing of His suffering in our sojourn through the wilderness on the way to Canaan.

As we remember and give thanks for the Cross of Christ, and as we are humbled by the privilege we are given to bear and carry the Cross as His Christian disciples, let us take to heart that, while the Cross is painful and a real suffering of real hurt, it is not our Lord’s defeat – nor ours – but His victory for us, first of all, and now also in us and with us, to the glory of His Holy Name.

So fundamental is the Cross of Christ – and the theology of the Cross – that Dr. Luther identified “the possession of the sacred Cross” as one of the definitive marks of the Holy Christian Church. In His 1539 treatise, On the Councils and the Church, he described seven such marks, namely, (1.) the holy Word of God, (2.) the holy Sacrament of Baptism, (3.) the holy Sacrament of the Altar, (4.) the exercise of the Office of the Keys in both church discipline and holy Absolution, (5.) the calling and consecration of ministers to serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry, and (6.) the prayer, praise, and thanksgiving of God’s people, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and the public confession of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Catechism; and then also, “Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the possession of the sacred Cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh” (Luther’s Works AE, Vol. 41, p. 164).

So it is that, along with the sign of the Cross in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution, in prayer and in worship, and along with the crosses that we wear and with which adorn our homes and churches, there is above all that Cross which we receive and suffer by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, whereby we are crucified, put to death, and buried with Him, in order to be raised up from death to life in and with Him, to the praise and glory of His grace, now and forever.