Let me introduce you to an unlikely icon. His name is Nick. He grew up in Oregon in a Greek immigrant family. Though he served as an acolyte at the Greek Orthodox church in Portland from time-to-time, much of his childhood and youth were spent in the hills, mountains, and valleys of the Oregon Coast Range in the then-booming logging industry. His world was made of mill-towns, and gravel roads, filled with the sounds of whistle-punks issuing their life-or-death orders, loaded log trucks grunting up steep inclines, and shouts of workers over the whine of saws. He knew the bracing scent of fresh-milled lumber and the smoke from wigwam burners settling throughout a forested draw. He also knew men to be maimed and killed in frequent logging accidents, and a life that was as insecure as it was hard.
Along the way, Nick had picked up tuberculosis—which had damaged his jaw and neck—and done a fair bit of hard drinking, hard smoking, and general “hard living.” His voice, purchased at the cost of immense amounts of whiskey and cigarettes, was something like rock sliding out of the bed of a dump truck. His manner was gruff and surly. He had left the Orthodox Church of his childhood after a deep disappointment with it, he said. He was “his own man” and had worked as an electrician, hunted, and didn’t like being told what to think or do. To me was a classic Oregonian in most respects.
But, he was at church regularly, and that set him apart and made me very interested.
He had found his way back to church when he met his wife. She was an Episcopalian and drug him to church to get married and he kept coming. Week by week, Nick worshipped in his rather reserved way, not mixing it up with other folks much at coffee hour. But once in a while, he would show up at church and want to talk with me—about his family, about his faith, about his life. It took him a while to warm up to this very green priest…but eventually, he did so, and shared with me something I am thinking about today a good deal.
We sat at the table in my office. He was his usual slow-talking, gravelly, tough self. He didn’t smoke any more, but his style and pace of speech made you imagine he was taking long draws on a cigarette between sentences. He spoke about his childhood, the church and its hypocrisy, the tough breaks he had known and his time away from God. “What brought you back?” I wondered aloud. He fixed his gaze on me intently and said these words, which I have shared with you before: “Father, I believe in God’s 2x4 kind of love. Because it took a 2x4 from God in the form of a severe heart attack to make this stubborn Greek to see that he loves me. Until then, I just kept trying to make life work my own way—angry, resentful. But when he laid me low with that, I learned something; I knew I had to change my ways. And that’s why you see me here today, and why I have such a happy attitude.”
On a deep level, Nick was living proof of the power of accepting God’s love from the Cross. We take infinite care to try and meet God in our strength, our abilities, our gifts. But this is not where Christ came on Good Friday. He did not walk peacefully to a palace or a perfectly manicured garden to meet us on that day. He stumbled, fell, and struggled on to a desolate patch of raw earth, probably the town dump of his day, to meet us in all our imperfection and brokenness—where we need him the most. It was in our need, our poverty he encountered us. Only that was the suitable ground for his battle with Death and Sin, and it is there we meet him still.
We began Lent by kneeling, and we are ending it the same way. We started this season on our knees on Ash Wednesday in penitence for our sins, acknowledging our mortality. Christ Jesus came into the world as a human being precisely so God could share our humanity, experience our frailty, and then to die as we do. It is this fact from which we are tempted to turn very quickly. God, in some mysterious and shocking way, dies on the Cross. The deathless One partakes of the horror of the world He fashioned and gave the freedom to go so very wrong. As has been pointed out many times before, if Jesus was who he said he was (and is), then it is not his resurrection that is his most incredible miracle: it is his death. It is that death, accomplished on the Cross, that provides the complete access point between us and God, between a world seemingly consecrated to death and the God of eternal life.
When a person becomes a part of Christ’s Body through baptism, the Cross is always marked on the forehead. It is the beginning of many times when that sign is traced there: by the bishop at confirmation, when receiving holy oil in times of sickness, when receiving absolution in a sacramental confession, and when we die. Most of these times are occasions when we are seeking God’s strength in the face of trial, when are vulnerable, when we seek victory over what assails us. And here is where Nick comes in again….
Nick was short, of course, for Nicholas; and the root of that name in Greek is the word for “victory” combined with the word for “the people.” So, his name really meant “the people’s victory.” But it is only when combined with his middle name that I came to understand why Nick was such a powerful icon for me, even though he was so very different from me. That middle name was “Stavros,” a name given by Greeks that means “Cross” – the Cross of Christ. So, his names added up to “The People’s Victory is through the Cross of Christ.”
Nick’s long journey back to God and the Church could only happen when he truly embraced the Cross of Christ in his life. That embrace happened when he had to make a choice about how to respond to a crisis, a Greek word that means “decision.” He had to decide for life or against it. He chose life and returned to God. In that moment—as it is for each of us whenever we repent and return, no matter how many times we do so—the entire story of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension happens once more. Our adoption by God is manifested each time we take hold the Cross in our life each time we recognize our poverty and need. There we experience the relationship of love between the crucified Christ and the Father. And God never tires of seeking that moment with us.
Our journey has come full circle. We began Lent on our knees with ash crosses on our foreheads; we end it on our knees before the Cross that makes possible all growth, all hope, all restoration with God, our neighbor, and our potential own self. We have made this pilgrimage, perhaps followed a Lenten Rule, so that we may come to this moment and claim for our own the People’s Victory through the Cross.
Whether it took a gentle word, the memory of a childhood faith, an invitation from a friend, the loss of a loved-one, a big setback, a close call, or God’s 2x4 kind of love, we are here together as equally needy recipients of God’s restoring love. This is what Christ came to give us; it is what he desired to do above all things. Receive it. Give thanks for it at the foot of the Cross. If you let the Cross slip from your grasp through sin or negligence, remember: it is marked on you forever; keep coming back, again and again. Christ stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross not only once, but forever so that not one may fail to share in his Victory.
The Collect for Good Friday:
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.