Hold tight to the cross of Jesus
On Monday this week I was one of those fortunate few, it seemed, who had the day off. So Lenore and I visited the Alexandria National Cemetery. We thought that this would be a great way to spend a part of Veteran’s Day, seeing the final resting place of many who had died here in this city during our country’s Civil War.
I soon got bored, though, with the pristine rows upon rows of seemingly endless, uniform headstones, when just on the other side of the cemetery were all kinds of different monuments lying haphazardly all over the place. Have you been to this cemetery complex? There is a section established in 1808 that belongs to Christ Episcopal Church, and one, established in 1809, that belongs to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. There also are sections that belong to the oldest congregations in our city. In these church sections were many, many testimonies to the faith of our ancestors in Christ Jesus, all embedded in stone and on display for all to see.
Actually, I wasn’t focused on the faith-statements that some of the markers displayed, not at first. At first I was mentally ranting about how much wealth had been tied up in very large and ostentatious monuments that rose high into the sky. “Why,” I wondered, “did all these church people invest so much of their money in this way?”
As I looked around, I noticed that many of the small tombstones, and even some of the older large monuments, had been thrown to the ground. Many had broken into pieces that were so weathered we couldn’t even read the names engraved on them, defying the deceased’s efforts to be eternally remembered here in this world.
Remembering Carol’s stewardship sermon from last Sunday, I worked up a really good case of indignation. “Was this a good use of all that God had given them?” Now, for all that I know, those people with the huge stone monuments may have fed and educated every orphan in Alexandria. Just as I was trying to convince myself of this, I spied Elsie Johnson, who is pictured on the front of today’s bulletin. Have you noticed Elsie already?
Elsie was in the Methodist section of the cemetery, in her family’s plot. There she was, engraved in stone, a very young woman clinging to the cross of Jesus, holding fast. I was drawn to that headstone. As I approached I noticed that someone had recently hung a Roman Catholic rosary around her neck. Elsie was 24 when she died in 1918.
As I took all of this in, I realized that there were other testimonies in this family’s plot. This family had lost four babies, two of whom were named John Edward, as well as Elsie, their young adult daughter. The parents of this family had obviously been clinging to the cross of Jesus for all they were worth when they had buried THIS child. Just as clearly as if they had stood there and spoken, I heard their absolute faith, amid their apocalypse, their faith even as their world was ending, faith in being reunited in life hereafter, through the cross of Jesus.
I am telling you this story because the Johnson family’s witness—hold tight to the cross of Jesus—is a lesson that we are given in our gospel reading today. We have a ways to go before we get to that conclusion, but this is where we are heading: Hold tight to the cross of Jesus, no matter what disaster might befall us.
Our gospel lesson doesn’t start off with apocalypse, though. The lesson begins with the splendor of the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, the Temple in Jesus’ day was the most majestic building there was in all Jerusalem. The Temple was large. Imposing. 35 acres of “awe-inspiring.” For Jerusalem—indeed, for all of Israel—the Temple was the CENTER of everything for all who feared God.
In today’s gospel lesson, one of Jesus’ disciples—we are not told which one—was so taken with the temple’s majesty that he pointed out to Jesus just how impressive that building was. Jesus didn’t seem to be impressed, though. On the contrary, Jesus told him that the Temple would be destroyed so thoroughly that its stones would be thrown down like so many pick-up-sticks, like so many Humpty Dumpties. Those stones—the Temple itself—would be like the fig tree that had just withered and died after Jesus had noticed that THIS tree had not produced fruit in a long time.
Doesn’t everything pass away—fig tree, Temple, each of us, our tombstones, even our whole world, when each has accomplished God’s purpose?
Historians tell us that the temple of Jesus’ day was totally destroyed in 70 CE, some 40 years after Jesus had been crucified. In fact, today’s gospel lesson is how some scholars date Mark’s gospel. Most scholars reckon that Mark must have written his gospel in or near the year 70 for Jesus to have been able to predict the unthinkable destruction of the Temple. However, the political and other factors that led to Rome’s obliteration of the Temple should have been predictable even in Jesus’ time by all with eyes to see and with ears to hear.
Except sometimes we don’t see what should be plain to all, do we? When the stakes are so high—OUR Temple! OUR WORLD!—THEN maybe we are totally unable to see the imminent apocalypse that is heading our way. But we know that disaster is coming; disaster is part of our fallen lives. You don’t need my list of potential calamities to tell you that we are each ground zero for disaster; at the very least, we each will die one day.
Some of Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus the 100-million-dollar question: WHEN will our world die, and how will we know in time to do something about the end? This time Mark named the disciples who asked THIS question. The whole vestry leadership team, the Executive Committee, asked him: Peter, James, John, and Andrew.
This question is very ironic, at this point in Mark’s gospel. All the way on their journey to Jerusalem, Jesus had been telling his disciples that their world was about to come to an end. Jesus was going to die on a cross. Mark tells us that, as Jesus died, the veil of the oh-so-impressive Temple in Jerusalem was split in two, rent asunder, totally destroyed. For Mark, Jesus’ prediction concerning the Temple came to pass at the very moment that Jesus had died, not decades later when the walls finally came tumbling down.
Disasters will come. Icons will fall. The order of life as God intended at creation is out of whack, a-kilter. Babies die and all their parents are left rocking is their grief. But Jesus provided a way to fix it all. And the answer that Jesus gave to Peter, James, John, and Andrew, is most instructive, most helpful for us today. Instead of giving them a date when the Temple would be no more, Jesus told them, “BEWARE that no one leads you astray.” In essence, Jesus told them, “Always be ready,” and “Hold on to me. Hold on to my cross.” When the disasters come—because disasters will come—“Hold on to me and to what I promise. There will be a new day, a new reality. These calamities are the birth pangs of something new. The old will pass away and ALL will become new. Don’t lost sight; don’t lose hope.” We can cling to this promise.
Just how can we hold tight to Jesus’ cross? By remembering to give thanks each day for the gift of life, no matter how painful that life might be. By never blaming God for the calamity, but instead reminding ourselves, over and over again, if need be, that God is holding us oh-so-safe, in the palm of his hand. And by placing ourselves in the presence of others, to share their apocalypse, their pain. Finally, we can hold tight to Jesus’ cross by affirming to all who will listen that, thanks to Jesus, a new reality is being born.
Be careful, Jesus says, who you choose to lead you. Be careful, Jesus says, in whom you put your trust. Hold fast to me. Hold fast to my cross, because only through the cross will all things will be made new. Even the Temple in Jerusalem, which we will see again one day, in glory everlasting.