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Duccio's "Maestà"

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, September 18, 2016, The Solemnity of the Feast of the Holy Cross

Too many years ago, when I was the rector of a church in Newton, I got the bright idea in my head of setting up a large (life-sized, in fact) cross in the churchyard during Lent.  This is the custom in some places, and I decided to start it at my own church.

You couldn’t miss it.  It was, as I said, a life-sized cross, and I put it up right next to the stairs that led to the front door.  I said nothing to anyone about this.  With the help of the sexton, I just put it up and waited for the reaction.

And, you know, something very strange and surprising happened: there was no reaction.  Out of a congregation of a hundred, a hundred and twenty people, only one person even mentioned it.  It was up for weeks (during Lent), and only one person said a word.

I was astonished.  They were a fairly vocal group.  What was going on, I wondered.  And then it dawned on me.  I was being unfair.  Perhaps they just didn’t know what to say.  One couldn’t remark offhandedly, “How nice.  What a beautiful addition to the garden,” for it wasn’t nice, and it wasn’t beautiful.  It was hideous, dreadful, an awful thing.  Perhaps they just didn’t know what to say or even what to think about it, and so they said nothing.  Sometimes, I must tell you, when I’m faced with the Cross of Jesus I feel the same way.

I suppose that members of my former flock should have been so speechless ought not to be surprising.  Most of the crosses we see are brass or silver or painted and polished wood.  Many of those are beautiful – works of art – and we admire them.  But what of an ugly, life-sized cross?  Bare wood, dirty and unadorned, except for three railroad spikes I found on the tracks, and pounded into the wood, a crown of barbed wire, a sign, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  You could in fact have crucified a person on that thing that stood in my former churchyard.  And so it seems that on purpose, but without foreseeing the results, I forced my flock to pass from the realm of art (the brass, the silver, the ivory, the polished wood) to the realm of hard, cold reality.  And the reality shocked them. It was horrible, that thing in the churchyard.  We cannot imagine how anyone could do that to another human being – nail them to a cross.

I am reminded of a very interesting fact, and that is this: that it was not until several hundred years after the death of our Lord that Christians began to portray the cross artistically and in the decoration of their churches.  It was not that the early Church avoided pictures and signs and symbols.  Indeed, the art of early Christianity is full of signs and symbols and scenes of Biblical history.  But rarely – almost never – did the earliest Christians depict the cross.  And the reason for this is that the cross – to put it simply – was just too shocking.  Even a stylized cross meant only one thing to the people of that time.  It meant death.  A criminal’s death – an ugly, painful, scandalous, ignominious thing.

Imagine what would happen today, if some religious group began using a hangman’s noose or an electric chair as its symbol.  This sounds ridiculous, but that is just what the cross of our Christian faith meant to people outside the Church and inside the Church.  For, you see, most people had seen crucifixions in those days.  That was how the Romans put to death those who had committed certain crimes.  And they usually did it in a public place or beside the road, so that everyone would be forced to see it – as an example, and a warning.  Everyone had seen them.  And so the cross meant execution, it meant scandal, it meant an agonizing, lingering, and bloody death.  And so to the Jews this cross was indeed, as St Paul says, a stumbling block: the Messiah was not supposed to come to Israel that way.  No, the Messiah was expected with power and might and triumph.  And certainly to Greeks, this cross was folly: what kind of God was crucified, what kind of God was executed, put to death by mortal men?  Unheard of.  Impossible. To everyone outside the Church the Cross was, to put it simply, too much, and the early Christians were reticent about advertising it publicly.  It made this new Christian faith seem just too wild, too foolish – that God could bring about salvation by means of an instrument of execution, an instrument of painful death.

But now let’s leave factual “reality” for a moment and step forward in time and look at the cross as it is seen in a later age.  There is a beautiful and serene portrayal of the cross – the Crucifixion – by Duccio, a Sienese painter of the early Renaissance.  It is the central panel of a large group of paintings which depict the life of our Lord.  Jesus hangs on the cross – very obviously dead – on either side of him are his mother and a disciple, St John.  The title of this picture – or rather of the whole group of paintings – is MAESTÀ, majesty.  The artist – Duccio – contemplated the cross and he saw there certainly the horror, the agony, the apparent defeat and shame – but most of all, he saw something else – he saw majesty, true power, real victory.  He saw there what the early Christians themselves saw – but what seemed so contradictory, so puzzling to the world around them.  So contradictory, so puzzling that they avoided picturing it or using it as their sign.

As St Paul says, “The doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin, but to us who ae on the way to salvation it is the power of God.”  Yet even so, it is still puzzling, isn’t it?  For in the cross what seems to be only darkness and death is found to be light and life.  Things are reversed, turned around.  What seems to be only weakness and defeat turns out to be power and victory.  MAESTÀ, majesty.

The cross completely overturns all our commonsense, all our practical wisdom.  As St Paul says again, through the cross “God has made the wisdom of the world look foolish.”  And this means that in the light of the Cross, we must continually change our thoughts, indeed change our mode of thinking and redefine our terms.  In the cross, we see – as did that Italian painter and as did the early Christians and St Paul – in the cross we see majesty – but not majesty in terms of might or dominion or force, but majesty in terms of service, obedience, and love.  And this is precisely what is so puzzling, so contradictory, for the cross makes us change our conceptions of what majesty and power and victory really are.  The cross makes us think again.  The world around us – its presidents, and rulers, and magazines, and newspapers and movies – the world and its wisdom tell us that power is domination, power is wealth, power is force, power is brute strength.  But the Cross cuts through all these ideas, these wicked ideas – and tells us that God’s power is love.  And that this power, this majesty has been manifested and made effective, not in domination but in submission; not in wealth, but in poverty; not in strength, but in weakness; not in force, but in transforming love.

There is a hymn whose first line goes: “O, where are kings and empires now?”  In the light of the Cross that is a good question.  Where indeed?  Where are kings, where are empires, where are armies, where victories, where triumphs?  Where?  The Cross makes all these things seem so silly, so futile, so missing-the-point.  Because kings, empires, armies have missed the point – they have not learned the secret – that, again, power, true power, is found not in dominion, but in apparent weakness; not in force, but in obedience, not in hatred, but in love.

Amen.

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