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Crosses: A Maundy Thursday Address

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Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 16: Crosses

A Maundy Thursday Address Preceding A Communion Service

D. H. Lawrence tells us that on a walking tour which he made through the Austrian Tyrol, he saw little crucifixes dotting the landscape in that part of the world. With his usual acuteness, he describes the various interpretations of the crucifixion represented in this peasant form of art. He said that some of the faces represent Jesus as a defiant young man offering resistance to the end; others represent him as a self-pitying, whining figure; still others depict him as in a stupor dully enduring the pain; others show him in a forgiving attitude.

The principal interpretations of the crucifixion as a human exper-ience would certainly have to include one that D. H. Lawrence has omitted. This interpretation might be characterized as the cross smothered in flowers, the view suggested by the ecclesiastical manipulation of religious symbols in the interest of a pretty sentimentalism. This interpretation eliminates all evidence of pain and suffering, sin and evil.

All of the great symbols of the Christian faith have been represented with this same variety of subjective interpretation. The communion service has not been exempt from these perversions. The Lord’s supper is sometimes viewed simply as a beautiful ceremony calling to its aid a profusion of light and color. At other times, it is seen as a liturgical act which by some magical potency transmits supernatural grace; and at still other times, it is looked upon as a sacred performance which draws the communicant away from the harrowing experiences of the common life to a restful retreat in the communion of saints.

If the cross is to be seen in its significance, it must be taken up from the lilies and confronted in its stark and rugged reality; and the communion service must be drawn up out of the light and color which only titilate the senses, and seen in the full richness of significance that it carried on that night of the last supper.

One of the ways in which the communion service can be envisaged in its true perspective is to recall that the last supper was not a ceremony in a church at which priests officiated for the assembled worshipers. Indeed, there were no priests present. Neither Jesus nor his disciples looked upon themselves as priests or clergy. They were, as a matter of fact, laymen who were rapidly approaching a fateful destiny at the hands of the clergy. Such a reflection as this is not suggested for the purpose of depreciating the clergy of Jesus’ time or ours. Rather it is mentioned in order to remind us that the Christian religion was founded by lay people. As a matter of fact, we may go further and say that the vitality of the Christian religion, and especially of Protestantism, has depended largely upon its laymen and its laywomen. Protestantism has given clear and definite expression to this thought by its doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. That is, in the eyes of God, there is no deeply religious distinction between the clergy and the laity. All laymen and laywomen are priests; all priests are laymen and laywomen. What makes a priest a believer is the same thing which makes a lay person a priest: personal decision. No set of sacred doctrines or of sacred liturgical acts, properly transmitted or performed by the clergy, no act of ordination by the bishop or congregation can relieve the individual clergy person or lay person from responsibility for decision. Not even the Bible can liberate anyone from this responsibility. Individual decision, even concerning the Bible, is inescapable. Hence, the genuineness of this service depends entirely upon the kind of decision and the quality of life which we ourselves actually illustrate. Neither the beauty of the service, nor the hallowed memories which the service calls to mind can actually justify our participation. The circumstances surrounding the first communion service bring this very truth into bold relief. It is an experience which, through personal decision, bound a group of lay people to each other and to their Master.

In the second place, the Last Supper was not held in the temple; it was held in an upper room. It was a meal shared in common in the course of the ordinary and customary activities of the daily round. It was not a sacred act withdrawn from the secular realm. It was, to be sure, a holy act, an act that gave an eternal meaning to those moments when the disciples were alone with the Master. The holiness of this fellowship derived from the common life which these disciples had been sharing every day. The same thing must be said about our communion service. We are participating in this ceremony in a church, but it is not for that reason holy. It is holy only insofar as it points beyond itself, beyond to God on the one side, and beyond to our every day living on the other side. Here again we are appealing to a time honored Protestant principle. Just as we deny any fundamental religious distinction between the laity and the clergy, so also do we repudiate on principle a cleavage of the sacred from the profane sphere. To Protestantism, God alone is holy, and no church, no doctrine, no saint, no institution, and no rite is holy in itself. Everyone and everything and every group is profane in itself and is sacred only insofar as it becomes a symbol of the divine holiness. Just as our participation in this service presupposes that each of us has made a personal decision in favor of the gospel of love which is at the heart of service, so also our presence here presupposes that we are willing to being within the area of that gospel of love in all of our common life: our dependence upon nature, our dependence upon each other, even our ways of earning our daily bread. Our presence here means, then, that we believe that all of our life is sacred as well as secular. The very symbols which surround the nave and chancel of this church remind us of the sacredness of our work and our play, of sun, moon, and stars, of family, state, and church. The mirror of marble behind the altar, on which stands the communion cup, reminds us that we do not leave the world of the secular and the profane when we enter into the holy of holies. Rather we bring all of life to the altar in praise and in thanksgiving, in penitence and in consecration before the divine judgment which knows the secrets of all hearts.

But this service of communion should remind us of more than just the priesthood of all believers and of the inseparable bond between the sacred and the secular. When we recall that tomorrow is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, we are brought away from the unreality of surface beauty and into collision with reality with a terrific jolt. This service is not merely an occasion for a communion with God and with each other, re-presenting for us the ideal of love which binds us together. It is also a reminder of the terrible reality of evil. Jesus and many others before and since have been the innocent victims of so-called good people. Indeed, the tragedy of Good Friday was not really the tragedy of Jesus; it was the tragedy of the world. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. This real tragedy of Good Friday, this oft-repeated tragedy, was clearly thought of in this way by Jesus. The women of Jerusalem wept for him, but Jesus did not regard his own life as pitiful. “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children.”

The crucifixion of Jesus was not a judgment upon him, but a judgment upon the world in which we live. The cross is not merely a tree on Golgatha or an ecclesiastical ornament on the altar; it is a persistent and perennial reality. Therefore, the communion service is not merely a sharing of ideals and purposes; it is also in the breaking of the bread and in the pouring of the cup, an unflinching realistic reminder of the evil which we ourselves have brought into the world, the evil which each of us bears within. We must not, then, in this communion service neglect its foreboding of the evil which we share and which goes on crucifying Christ in every age and in every heart. Truly, one might go so far as to say that we may test the genuineness of our awareness of the sacred and divine element in life by asking whether we possess a corresponding awareness of the Satanic element in our lives. The reality and the realism of one’s belief in God can be vindicated only by the reality and realism of one’s belief in Satan. Wherever the presence of the divine is deeply felt, there too will be felt the presence of the devil.

It is precisely a vague awareness of this truth that makes us reluctant to talk about the cross in our ordinary conversation. It is this awareness of the mediocrity and guilt of our existence, this awareness of the share which we have through sins of both omission and commission in our jerry-built civilization; it is this awareness which restrains us from glib talk about the the cross. What troubles us is the comfort of our lives, their ease, their security, their remoteness from the cross, their indifference to the privations and sufferings of the innocent. How can we be terribly at ease in Zion, then, as we worship here together in the presence of that spirit before whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid? We cannot, and that is why I say that the communion service is more than a sharing of our ideals and more than a memorial to ancient virtue; it is also an uncovering of the sinful reality which made the crucifixion possible in the first place and which gives point to our remembering it at all.

The communion service does more than remind us of the omnipresence of evil. It is also the source of a great and confident hope, a hope based on the conviction that if we can but to learn to weep for ourselves, if we can repent, we can also find the victory that overcomes the world. This man of Galilee who says to us, “Weep not for me; weep for yourselves,” wished to save us from tears wept for him and also from tears wept in self-pity for ourselves. Through his evangel, his good news concerning the love that suffers and forgives, our tears of self-pity are transmuted into tears of repentance. Repentance does not accuse the wicked world around us and within us of the fate which left us to set it right. It accuses self and in humility of spirit begins the work of quiet and gracious reconciliation. Here we find the promise of possible meaning and beauty. Penitence and re-birth make us truly realistic about ourselves, our city, our nation; and the word realistic need not signify merely an awareness of evil but also the possibility of good. It discloses not only the real and the possible baseness of human nature, but also our possible grandeur, which is for all time symbolized and memorialized in the character of the Galilean.

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.