Thursday of this week, Sept. 14, was Holy Cross Day. One of the most important parts of my recent sabbatical was making a pilgrimage to visit crosses that were important in the story of my family in our ancestral homeland of Scotland. It is amazing that a number of freestanding crosses are still standing after enduring brutal weather conditions for over 500 to 1,000 years or more.
The crosses were placed in significant places and appear to have been the gathering places for the earliest Christian communities in Scotland. Later, chapels or abbeys were built near the sites of the crosses. The crosses stand as sentinels, watching over the places of worship, and serve as markers, connecting the chapel or abbey with the nearby villages. These ancient crosses were built from stone found in their regions, and artists carved intricate patterns on them to tell our collective stories of God’s creation and of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Many of these patterns are still amazingly intact. It was poignant to spend time in prayer and reflection at MacLean’s Cross, which was placed by my ancestors near the center of the Isle of Iona around 1500, and the Kilnave and Kildalton Crosses, which date back from the 8th century on Islay.
The crosses have meaning beyond being the instrument of death for Jesus. Each cross points vertically and horizontally, signifying both the transcendence and immanence of God. The crosses invite us to look upward toward the God who creates the cosmos and longs to lift us heavenward in our thoughts and our ways of being. The crosses also invite us to look sideways toward relationships with our neighbors in which we find the presence of Jesus in the kind eyes of fellow pilgrims.
My wife Ruthie’s favorite hymn is “Lift High the Cross.” It is also the official hymn of the Daughters of the King and is always sung as the closing hymn of their assemblies. The hymn harkens us back to our Baptism with the stanza, “Each newborn servant of the Crucified bears on the brow the seal of him who died.” It also harkens us forward in pilgrimage with the line, “Come, Christians, follow where the Master trod.” The hymn is often used as a recessional hymn with the cross held by the crucifer leading us from worship in Calvary’s building to worship in the way we live and in being who we are in the world around us.
The opportunity to see these three crosses up close and spend reflection time at each was an amazing gift. They took me backward to ancestors and others who demonstrated their devotion by taking the time to hew and carve sacred works of art that would last centuries. The crosses also brought me into the present and future, wondering where they are leading me and us to live both heavenward and earthbound-bound with our neighbors. Thank you for the opportunity to feel Jesus lifting us all up with a love that endures.