by Stephen Crippen
In the church of my childhood, it didn’t take long to notice what Lent was all about. All you had to do was walk into the sanctuary and behold the large rough-hewn cross, usually constructed from the trunks of last year’s Christmas trees. You wouldn’t necessarily notice that on the left, right near an exit door, was the tiny baptismal font. Lent was not about Baptism, or preparation for Baptism, or reflection on Baptism. It was all about the cross.
The hymns were dark, sometimes bloody: “Alas, and did my Savior bleed…” “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens…” “Beneath the cross of Jesus I long to take my stand…” Every Wednesday in Lent the church would hold dramatic retellings of the Passion story from the perspective of various characters: one week, a parishioner dressed (with full makeup and lighting!) as Mary Magdalene would tell us what it was like to be with Jesus in his last hours. The next week, a disciple would talk about his fear, his impulse to run away from Jesus.
I realized only later that the original purpose of Lent was to prepare people for their Baptism at Easter, and encourage all the baptized to reflect on their own baptismal identity. What does it mean to be “baptized into Christ’s death?” What does it mean to “grow into the full stature of Christ”? (That’s a line from the Baptism liturgy.) Lent is a way to decode some of this mysterious language. It’s about Baptism.
Okay…but let’s not forget the cross. The mystery of the cross can even help us delve more deeply into the mystery of Holy Baptism.
At St. Paul’s, our art and architecture seem to be forcing us in the direction of my childhood parish: our crucifix is huge, rising dramatically above the whole space. We’ve improved our font—it is now a deep pool, a round earthenware vessel of abundant water—but the cross still looms, that mysterious and sometimes frightening and (especially for children) eternally fascinating symbol. What does it mean? What am I supposed to do with it? And, is that what they mean by being baptized into Christ’s death?!
Well, yes, but like all rich symbols, the meaning is always more than we imagine, more than we can grasp. The symbol leads us further into the life of God. It’s not supposed to offer a neat and tidy (or simply scary!) explanation.
But for those like me who need help with this, I share with you a poem written by my favorite poet and hymnwriter, Susan Cherwien. She opens up—though never completely!—the symbol of the cross. With her as a guide, we can walk a little further toward the garden of Easter, with both the fountain and the Tree of Life at its center.
by Susan Palo Cherwien
Bright joining of godly and human
eternity coupling with present
embracing clear light and thick darkness
blest cross, star announcing the Savior.
Blest union of evil and holy
absorbing and willing transforming
embracing the pain of the cosmos
blest cross, outstretched arms of the Savior.
Grand juncture of dying and living
a drowning deep blue into newness
embracing Christ’s death and arising
blest cross, sign anointing our forehead.
Great fusion of body and spirit
in exile yet living the promise
embracing life’s daily small dying
blest cross, faith traced hand upon body.
Bright bonding of matter and power
enfolding, expelling, igniting
embracing deep space and small fragment
blest cross, cosmic arms of the Savior.
Stephen is a therapist and postulant to the Diaconate. You can find his personal blog here.