Holy Cross Day, 2008 - Belonging to Christ
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Some terrible happenings have been taking place over the last few weeks in the North-Eastern Indian state of Orissa, as you may have read in the newspapers. Long-standing tensions between Christians in the poor rural villages and Hindu hardliners have re-erupted ... one of the Hindu leaders was murdered, allegedly by Maoist insurgents – who have taken responsibility for the killing - but the Christians have been blamed. Thousands have been forced to flee into the jungle or into refugee camps; churches and the homes of Christians have been burned; several Christians have been killed, including clergy and children. Even the bishop of Phulbani, who was with the other Indian bishops who visited Derbyshire in July, has had to take refuge in a safe house. It is one of the worst examples of violence between Christians and Hindus in years.
Through most of India, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and other faiths co-exist perfectly happily – outbreaks of persecution such as this, and indeed the bomb blasts yesterday in Delhi, by Muslim extremists, are unusual. But what is particularly disturbing about the latest persecution in Orissa is that it is being accompanied by forcible attempts to convert the Christians to Hinduism. This is something which I imagine most of us thought didn’t happen today – we associate it more with the spread of Christianity under the Roman empire and the rapid expansion of Islam in its early stages. But in fact Christians in some parts of Orissa are being told that if they don’t become Hindus, they will not be allowed to return to their villages or to live there safely. In the ceremony of conversion, they have to burn a Bible, and to smash a coconut which symbolises a Christian. They say a prayer to the god of the hills, and swear that they have now become a Hindu, and that if they ever become a Christian again, may their dynasty perish.
Today, in the Christian calendar, is Holy Cross Day. This is an ancient festival of the Church which goes back to the time, in the year 335, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was dedicated. This church, which still stands today, and is one of the holiest Christian sites in Israel, was built at the place where the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, is said to have discovered a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Whatever one believes about this, the site of the church is thought by many archaeologists to be at or close to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. On September 14th 335, after the dedication of the church, the piece of cross was brought out for worshippers to venerate.
What, then, is the connection between Holy Cross Day and the persecution of Christians in Orissa? The answer lies in one word – ‘belonging’. Since the earliest days of the Church, the Cross has been a symbol of belonging to Christ – after the ancient tradition whereby a slave or servant was marked with the mark of his or her master. Those Christians in Orissa are being faced with what is virtually a life and death decision – to whom or what, in religious terms, do they belong? Is the Cross to continue to be the symbol of their religious belonging – or something else? It is hard for us here to imagine the dilemma faced by these Christian communities – either they deny their Lord, or they lose their homes and livelihoods. We must of course pray for them – and pray that the news reports of these forced conversions to Hinduism are isolated instances and not widespread.
There were times in this country, of course, when religious belonging was forced upon you. At one point during the Reformation period people were obliged under law to attend Church on Sunday. Belonging to the Church of England was expected of a good English citizen – you had to be quite brave to be a Catholic or non-conformist. Now, of course, things are much easier – religious freedom in this country is taken for granted, and people can belong to whatever faith they wish – or none.
But in some ways that makes it more difficult to be an active Christian. Going to church today is not the norm – indeed the majority of people in this country probably wouldn’t even think of doing so. So, with churchgoing as being much less of a social and cultural thing, today, we come back to the question of what it really means to belong to Christ. The moment when the sign of the Cross and Christian belonging come together perhaps most strikingly is at a baptism. When someone is baptised – child or adult – the minister makes the sign of the cross on their forehead, signifying that they belong to Christ. They – or their parents and godparents, in the case of a young child – make six declarations, which are their statement of Christian belonging and commitment. They say that they:
In response, the Minister says, ‘Christ claims you for his own – receive the sign of the Cross’. In other words – they now belong to Christ.
On this Holy Cross Day, we should be asking ourselves who we really belong to. We may belong to various organisations; we belong to our families; but where does our belonging to Christ fit in to all this? If our belonging to Christ feels a little fragile, can we do anything to strengthen it? Is now a good moment to renew, in our hearts, those vows made at our baptism – which mean a turning away from all that is not of God, and a turning afresh to those things which are of God, and of Jesus?
It has been said that the Cross is a letter ‘I’ with a line through it. Just as Jesus gave up his earthly life on the cross, for the sins of the world, so for us, too, the way of the Cross involves putting a line through the ‘I’ which can so often drive everything we do. Our belonging to Christ, then, means that his Holy Spirit is all the more able to work through us – the Holy Spirit of love, forgiveness, compassion and service. And through his Spirit he shows that the Cross on which he died did not defeat him, but rather that he lives on - forever.
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