Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Easter Reflection

This is the sermonette for a Lenten reflection series of an international group of Anglicans that I was asked to contribute for. I thought my blog readers might be interested in reading it as well.

Revised Common LectionaryLent 1, Year A:
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

You may notice something a little different about the church this morning, or our worship space specifically. This is the first Sunday of Lent, so we have put out the Lenten purple on the altar, a reminder to us that the King is coming. We have changed the candlesticks we use to the more drab wooden ones. And we have put up the Stations of the Cross carvings along the wall of the nave.But there is an additional thing that you might not have seen before. We are using a different processional cross.

The rector, Jerry, and I debated for some time on Tuesday which alternate processional cross we were going to use, and we settled on the one you see behind the altar now. We wanted to go for something completely different that we usually use this time of year. It is not the larger more colorful and ornate one that we usually use, but a much simpler one in some ways. It is made out of ornate metalwork and is simply mounted on a wooden pole. I am told by various sources that a parishioner gave it as a gift to this parish. It is apparently Ethiopian in origin.

My curiosity about it was piqued this week when we dragged it out of the sacristy. I do not believe I have ever taken a good look at it, as it was sort of hidden away into the recesses of the sacristy. I got to studying about it this week, and as you can see here, it is a fairly typical form of Ethiopian processional cross.

To see a cross similar to the one my church uses and to which I am referring, go to: http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/650000/images/_651322_cross150.jpg

Christianity in Ethiopia, as I learned this week in preparation for this sermon, is largely influenced by Coptic Christianity, a branch of Christianity more similar to Eastern orthodoxy. Copts believe that their branch of Christianity was started in the 1st century by, ironically, our patron, Saint Mark, who supposedly fled some Roman persecutions into Egypt and founded the Coptic Church.I have no idea if that is “historically” true. It might very well be. But as I learned that this particular cross was descended from a branch of Christianity which claimed to be descended from the patron saint of our parish church, I got to digging into the symbolism of this particular style of cross. I will spare you the artistic minutiae, but as an Ethiopian friend of mine told me that in the Christian sections of the Ethiopian church, the processional cross was probably one of the most central cultural symbols.

The Ethiopians like religious processions apparently.What really interested me as I was researching this cross was that the cross really had a dual meaning to Ethiopians. Most people see the cross and, if they have any basic knowledge of Christianity, understand the cross to be representative of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is to say that the cross is the symbol of His death and resurrection which is very central to Christian theology. But if you look at this cross, you will notice it is very ornate, almost in a cruciform shape.

From a distance, all this metalwork here almost looks Celtic or something like that. The idea of the designers is that it looks, in essence, organic. It is not just supposed to look like the hardwood of the cross, but if you look at it, it looks like a living tree with ornate branches. So, to Ethiopians who use this form of processional cross in their liturgical processions, it represents the cross as we traditionally understand the symbol, but all as a representation of the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden (Genesis 2:9), by chance a reference to the very lectionary readings we have today.

As my Ethiopian friend related to me, the Tree of Life is a very important symbol of hope to a people that live in an area historically known for its famines and hardships. When they see religious processions and look up and see not just the cross but the Tree of Life that is a very powerful cultural symbol of hope and redemption to them. This cross that resembles a tree in the Garden of Eden got me to thinking about the story from the lectionary today: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This is probably one of the most well known of the stories in the bible. We’ve probably all see artwork over the ages of “The Expulsion from Paradise.” I have always found it interesting that most people hear the story of Adam and Eve in the garden immediately seem to think temptation.

We even refer to this story as “The Fall,” where Adam and Eve first “sinned” or brought sin into the world, if you prefer, as our brother the apostle Paul is going on about in the Epistle to the Romans today. Certainly temptation was the theme for the Gospel reading today. Most people who think of this particular story about Adam and Eve probably also think about “sin.” By that, I mean the word “sin,” a word unfortunately all too often used in churches. Many churches are all too willing and eager to talk about sin. Who’s sinning, who’s not. What the sins are…as if the entirety of Christian religion is a series of lists: a list of who is sinning, a list of who is not, and a list of what the sins are and the punishments thereof. That is usually quite an extensive list. I am sure we have all been to a church at some point in our lives, either as members or as visitors, where “sin” was all they could talk about.

As this processional cross reminds us this morning, the good news for us today was that tree of the knowledge of good and evil of which Adam and Eve both ate and brought sin into the world was not the only tree in God’s garden. The tree we in the church too often like to forget is the Tree of Life. There is really something quite interesting going on in this story. Did you catch Eve’s response to the serpent? In her response to the serpent’s query about what God actually said, did you catch that she misquoted God? She says, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ”

What did God actually say? Earlier, the verse says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die.’ ”Eve misquotes God by adding the commandment that they couldn’t even touch the fruit. God had specifically just told Adam to tend the whole garden.

God just said do not eat it. I think a lot of times, we like to do that. We feel like we have to be perfect all the time or God will smite us with lightning bolts or something, as if God’s grace and gift of life to us has to be more difficult than it is. This Lent as we began it in ashes and the remembrance of our own mortality, let us continue to focus on the cross, not just as a dead piece of wood, but as a source of life.

For Jesus reminds us in the gospel of Matthew:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Thanks be to God.

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