Sermon Preached on Holy Cross Day (14 September 2014) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at sites of Christian worship, notably the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre, but concludes that all churches are 'made holy more by prayer than by any artefacts or antecedents'.
Genesis 3: 1-15 John 12: 27-36a
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a basilica built on the site of the discovery of the cross of Christ by St Helena in the fourth century, is a chaotic and highly politicised building. Each denomination of Christianity which has taken up residence there guards its carefully delineated piece of floor space assiduously and often angrily.
And yet, at the heart of the church is a block of stone said to have been that on which Our Lord lay in death in the tomb. This slab of stone worn to an almost marble effect by the praying hands of millions of pilgrims over the centuries lies just beyond the high altar, sandwiched in between this altar and that of the Copts in the eastern apse of the church.
In order to pause for a brief moment – which is all you are permitted – at this prayer-soaked stone, you must stoop down and almost crawl into the space in which it is located. Two or three people at most can kneel before it at any one time – hence the brevity of your visit which is calculated by the surly-looking priests who guard it.
This extraordinary church was dedicated on this day – 14 September – in the year 335 and it for this reason that this day has become known as Holy Cross Day – the focus of our devotion today.
Despite the tense atmosphere of this cosmopolitan church, the principal focus of the pilgrim’s devotion requires that you must stoop low and shrug off the haughtiness of your stature in order to reach the goal of your pilgrimage.
So it is elsewhere in the region at Bethlehem, in the Church of the Holy Nativity, constructed on the site of the stable in which Jesus was born. Here, the focus of your pilgrimage requires a subterranean journey into a small claustrophobic crypt in which a starburst on the floor picks out the very spot on which the manger is said to have been.
The starburst is under a low arch which means that, like in Jerusalem, the pilgrim must stoop low in order to place his or her hand into the hole and touch the floor of the stable on which the manger sat. And, again, only a brief moment before you are hurried on to make way for others who desire also to create in their mind a sense of closeness to the Christ who – in that Holy Land – always seems just to have left the room when you arrive. You can also hear the latch clicking as the door shuts and Our Lord goes about his work and witness as a living sacrifice.
I’m never concerned about the veracity of these holy sites and do not waste time or emotional energy in demanding proof that these are indeed the sites of this or that part of the story. What attracts me to them is the prayer-drenched atmosphere of faith, hope and desire which make the places holy even if the archaeologists could – in a trice – render them inaccurate or false.
This cathedral church, and any church that you might happen to come from, is made holy more by prayer than by any artefacts or antecedents. There is no story from the mists of time that the true cross was ever found here on Ludgate Hill – although it could have been: St Helena was the daughter of Old King Cole who is said to have ruled the land to the east of London now know as Essex. So, we can make no claim that the five churches to have stood on this site since 604 have been home to the site of the discovery of the true cross and leave that attribution to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, more plausibly located as it is in Jerusalem.
And yet, all five churches to have stood on this site have stood here because of the cross without which our faith is naught. All five churches, including this one, have stood here as houses of prayer in which people have stooped – just like one does in Jerusalem – and knelt before a replica of the true cross and have offered intercession, sometimes praying for strength – often praying for a miracle. The prayers are sincere and the faith palpable and the stones soak up the prayer and are worn smooth by the faith and the this prayer and this faith is as true here in London or where you come from as it is true in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Here, the doorways are broad and the arches are high but, even here, we must stoop low and shrug of our haughtiness as we kneel down in prayer for the brief moment that is allotted to us on earth and, through the eye of faith which is the eye of the imagination, behold the wood of the cross on which the Saviour of the world was hung and who has saved us and redeemed us by his precious blood.
Let us pray:
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
And so may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.