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Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Holy Cross Day, 2016. Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County.

Holy Cross Day is a feast that has different names throughout the wider Church. In the Roman Catholic Church it is known officially as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, yet recently was also called the Triumph of the Cross. I like how the Greek Orthodox tradition calls this day the “Raising Aloft of the Honored and Life-Giving Cross.” Despite the variety of names, is a solemn feast that traces to very early in the Church, at least to the mid-fourth century, meaning that Christians have been keeping this celebration for perhaps one thousand, seven-hundred years. By celebrating this Holy Day today we join an immense cloud of witnesses that celebrates it with us — celebrates and adores our Savior Jesus Christ who, in the words of our Collect, was “lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself.”

That is a wonderful line from our Collect, and it echoes what Saint John quotes Jesus as saying: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” There are additional ancient texts of John’s Gospel that have Jesus drawing not only all people to him, but all things of any kind: in effect suggesting that what is drawn to himself is reality as a whole. That all reality is drawn to Jesus is an image that, while perhaps staggering in its immensity, indeed too much for the human mind to be able to comprehend in its totality, nonetheless is fitting, is it not? For it was through Jesus that all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made. (I am quoting of course from the opening verses of Saint John’s Gospel.) If all reality was made through Him, then in His glory on the cross, all reality returns to him, and all reality to Him is reconciled.

With all things in the universe drawn to Jesus raised high on the cross — and we cannot leave anything out here, whether from the vast swathes of interstellar space, all the stars and planets and galaxies fitting in quite nicely next to our beloved little doggies and kitties — you put all of creation together, reconciled to Jesus, and what might emerge is the kind of brilliant white light around Jesus; much like, perhaps, the raiment, white and glistening that Peter, John and James witnessed on the mountain at the Transfiguration of Jesus. What to do with that almost mystical vision, certainly as profound an image as they come, I do not know, save to sit with it, to love it, to reflect upon it quietly — all of reality glistening with Jesus — to allow the Holy Spirit to teach and guide you into truth about the Light Inaccessible. For to sit with, love, and reflect upon Jesus is to ponder him in your heart, the example given to us by Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, the model disciple.

Now I mentioned last week that today would be Part 2 of a kind of sermon series about Formation. This coincides with the kick-off of two Adult Study Classes in our Parish, one at Saint Paul’s and one at All Saints’. And there are two statements I made last week that I want to say a bit more about today.

The first statement was that “Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” I want to underscore that, because without seeing the process by which we gain understanding about Faith as a journey, we may not know where to begin, and we may not feel comfortable trying to articulate the questions that we have. When we are talking about the Christian Faith, the axiom is quite true: there are no bad questions. Formation begins with asking questions, whatever they might be, about our experience with God — this is as true for us today as it was for the first Christians trying to make sense of the Day of Pentecost. When we ask questions honestly, we find that somehow or another, we live into the answers, which leads to still more questions, and more living into the questions, and that is why we talk about journey, or “pilgrimage.” At all times and in all kinds of formation, we are guided by the Holy Spirit who helps us to begin to make sense of Jesus raised high on the cross, drawing all reality to him in glistening, breathtaking white light. Exploring even that one image is the work of a lifetime — it begins in this life and continues into the next.

The other statement I made was that “Adult formation is crucial to the survival of the Church today, and the survival of this Parish.” That is true because that is how the Church has always survived. While there can be no question that our current situation, in the wider Church and in our Parish, is a challenging one, be sure that this is hardly the first time the Church has faced difficulty. Whether it was vicious fights in the early centuries about heresy and true doctrine, not to mention the regular persecution of the early Church and all its martyrs (like Saint Lucy), or whether it was dealing with catastrophes from the Bubonic Plague or the ravages of war, the Church on earth has faced peril, more or less from day one. But it survives through Christians, formed spiritually and theologically in Faith, who pass on the revelation community to community, family to family, even person to person, at all times anchored in the Liturgy of the Church.

To be a disciple is to be trained by God, slowly and patiently to appreciate, to love, to adore the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, while available to the wider public, did not form the multitudes—he did not even try. He focused the vast majority of his attention, his care, and his teaching on the twelve disciples. He was raised up high on the cross for the sins of all people for all times. “Christ is the savior of the whole world, and it is important to realize that apart from a few square miles in the Middle East, he did not bother to look at it.” [1] Rather, he slowly guided a small group of people to become a true rock upon which His Church could be built—a group of people about the size of our Parish. To a small group he presented unfathomable mysteries that the Church is still trying to make sense of, to work out in fear and in trembling, mysteries the Church must protect, adore, and share with each new generation. As we gather in our Formation classes whether these two starting up now or in formation classes in the future, do know that less important is coming up with the right answers as it is forming the right kinds of questions, and doing so in community.

Let me conclude by noting that we petition God in our Collect to grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Brothers and sisters, Jesus reaches out to us from the cross with loving arms, and warm hands. His cross is the “source of all blessings, the source of all graces, through it, from our weakness, the faithful receive strength; from shame, glory; from death, life.” [2] This is the grace we must have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. If we believe in him, we believe that he is the true light come into the world. May we believe in this light, that we may become sons of light. And formed by this light, our faces, like Moses’, might shine to others.

[1] Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology, chap. 6.
[2] Leo the Great, Sermon LIX, On the Passion, VIII: on Wednesday in Holy Week.

Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.