Posted on September 14th, 2014
As Adam lay dying, his son Seth went to the border of Eden. There he said to the angel guarding the way in, “My father is dying; give to me from the Tree of Life, that I may bring it as medicine to him.” But the angel would not give him from the Tree of Life. Instead, he gave him a shoot from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “When this bears fruit,” said the angel, “Adam will be fully restored.”
So goes the legend. And the legend continues, that this shoot, planted on Adam’s grave, endured as a great tree, whose wood finally became used for the cross, thus fulfilling the angel’s words, “When this bears fruit, Adam will be fully restored.”
So goes the legend. And it is but a legend. It’s a legend I would love to believe, on this Day of the Holy Cross. For the fruit of this tree, the tree of the cross, is the death of Jesus for the life of the world, by which Adam and all his children will be fully restored.
Why keep remembering the legend about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil becoming the tree of the cross? Because the legend conveys a truth, the truth that by the cross comes healing, restoration, the undoing of the fall.
There is another legend, closer to our own time, but still far distant. This legend is also closer to known facts, for it deals with the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. Constantine, you may remember, issued the Edict of Milan, in the year of our Lord 313, granting religious liberty to Christians. In 326, his mother Helena went to Jerusalem to build churches on holy sites and to establish organizations to care for the poor.
There, Helena discovered the hiding place of the three crosses of Jesus and the two rebels. Not knowing which was the true cross, the one on which Jesus hung, the leading official of Jerusalem, a man named Macarius, devised a test. Reasoning that the true cross would bring healing, he brought a noblewoman who had long suffered from disease, and while praying, they determined to touch her with wood from each of the three crosses. And, so the story goes, the instant one of the crosses was brought near her, she was made well. That must be the true cross.
It is a story, not at all certain. That’s the fun of legends; they spark the imagination. But theological legends do even more: whether real or not, they illustrate a truth: the cross heals.
The search for the true cross by Helena, along with the holy sites of the nativity, upper room, and holy sepulcher, demonstrate something vital about Christianity: the history matters. We’re not dealing with ideas or ethics, politics or philosophy. A real man was crucified on a real cross and laid in a real tomb. The search for the true cross is a search for a piece of that history.
Such searches are prone to superstition and fraud. Luther once said that if we gathered all the pieces of wood supposed to be from the true cross, we’d have enough to build a barn!
But if the authenticity of this or that piece of wood is doubtful, the authenticity of the event is not. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, an event seen by many and documented by eyewitnesses. And on the third day he rose, was seen by over 500. His resurrection was documented by eyewitnesses, whose testimony was written in blood.
If we had a piece of the true cross, we would surely keep it, because we preserve objects that remind us of special events. Brides preserve their wedding dresses, graduates keep tassels, parents take pictures on the first day of school. When someone dies, it can be very hard to get rid of their things. The objects remind us of the person. We want to remember.
In the church, the tokens of remembrance that were kept, both of Jesus and the saints, were called relics. Now there’s nothing wrong with saving an object. The problem comes when magic, or some kind of spiritual power, is attached to the object.
Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and you see a transformation from pious remembrance to superstition to ungodly abuse. In the Large Catechism, Luther slices through the fog of false worship and hammers home the key point:
The Word of God is the true holy thing above all holy things. Indeed, it is the only one we Christians acknowledge and have. Though we had the bones of all the saints or all the holy and consecrated vestments gathered together in one heap, they could not help us in the slightest degree, for they are all dead things that can sanctify no one. But God’s Word is the treasure that sanctifies all things. By it all the saints themselves have been sanctified.
God gives us His Word through the Bible, preaching, and Sacraments. The material of the Sacraments is not holy in itself; i.e., there’s nothing holy about the water for Baptism or the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper. What makes these things holy, what makes them life-giving, is the Word of God attached to them. Jesus gives us His promises of new birth, the forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit, in Baptism; and likewise, His Words instituting the Sacrament are what makes it His Body and Blood.
All that is directly connected to what St. Paul says in the Epistle for Holy Cross day: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). He continues, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24 ESV).
To say, “Christ was crucified” is not to say much. It says the history. History is important. But faith believes the effect of the history. What does the cross mean? Not, “Christ was crucified,” but: Christ is crucified for you. For your sins. He dies your death. He is cursed with your curse. He is punished with your punishment. He fears your fear. He endures your shame. And in exchange, He gives you His righteousness, His sonship, His life.
The Word of the Cross is, “Father, forgive them.” That’s folly, foolishness, if your life is wrapped up in the treasures and pleasures of this world. Forgiveness? Who needs it?
The Word of the Cross is, “‘Behold, your King!’ A wretched, pathetic loser in Roman or Israeli power politics.” We don’t want a mild king who forgives sins. We want someone who can play smashmouth, fight for our rights, win the election, win the war.
But all of that is wrapped up in the love of this world, the attachment to this world, which is really the attachment to yourself. We want to win. But the victory of Jesus is in being a Victim who forgives. He does not demand payment from you but becomes Himself your payment. He is King not by demanding a tax from you but by being Himself your offering.
Rising from the dead, He strips death of its power. Which means death is also stripped of its power over you. Not only in some distant future kingdom, but even now. As the world is frantic about death, and clings therefore to possessions and worries about legacies, the disciple of Jesus lives without bondage to all of that. You can forgive, for all claims have been released. You drop your demands upon others, for all demands have been satisfied on the cross.
The legend of Helena and the woman healed by the wood of the cross is a beautiful story. But Clive’s baptism is no fable. Today the Father makes Clive His son, the Son makes Clive His brother, the Spirit makes Clive’s heart His home. And when we witness a Baptism, we rejoice that all those gifts apply also to us.
Likewise this Eucharist is no fable. You are touched here with no piece of wood, but with the holy body and precious blood of Jesus, which cleanses you from all sin, and will heal your body completely at the resurrection.
So everywhere in church and home and school we hang up crosses and crucifixes, not to worship wood or metal, but to be ever mindful of the one thing in this vain life that matters: Jesus and His victory over death.
Jesus died on a real cross, was really dead, and really rose again from the dead. You are really baptized, your sins are really forgiven, and even when you seem to be really dead, such death will have no power over you, for you shall really rise again. +INJ+