Homily on the Feast of St Henrik, 19 January 2004
This is the day of commemoration of the Patron Saint of Finland, Bishop Henrik. The expedition carried out by the King of Sweden, Erik, the Holy, and Bishop Henrik in 1155 is often termed a crusade, that is an expedition of the cross. Due to its dire history and even to the current misuse of the term, the word “crusade” has a bad ring to it. This misuse must in no way distract us from the proper concept, that is, that through Bishop Henrik the core of the Christian faith, the message of the cross came to Finland.
The sign of the cross is the most essential and perspicuous of the symbols of Christian faith. In commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ, we use the sign of the cross in both the liturgical life of the Church and in our own personal spiritual lives.
Many Finnish Lutherans have long held that crossing oneself is a Roman Catholic custom. Even after the mid-Twentieth Century, it was considered that making the sign of the cross was hypocritical and superficial. It was felt that a serious Lutheran would not be caught committing such an act.
The loss of making the Holy Sign of the Cross was, nevertheless, not something that can be blamed on the Reformation or even Martin Luther. It was only during the Eighteenth Century, the Enlightenment, that our Lutheran Church became liturgically estranged from its rich symbolism. When Martin Luther in his Small Catechism exhorts people to morning and evening prayers, he tells them to first bless themselves with the Holy Sign of the Cross. This was changed in the older Finnish translations to read that the person should cross his hands in prayer, which is, of course a good custom, too.
The sign of the cross made in Baptism is one of the most eloquent marks which can be made over the infant. The priest states: “Take this Holy Sign of the Cross on your forehead and breast as witness that the crucified Jesus Christ has redeemed you and called you to be His disciple.”
I have often thought that over my forehead, over my chest, the Holy Sign of the Cross was made already at a time when I understood nothing of life. I was but an infant in arms of my mother and godmothers. My parents and godparents were witnesses to my baptism. And through their retelling of the event I have been marked by the sign of the cross all of my life. Martin Luther sometimes spoke of Baptism as “an indelible sign” and even used this term which later on became a theological point of contention, that is “character indelebilis”.
The sign of the cross tells us that Baptism makes us Christ’s disciples and members of the Christian Church. In Baptism we are forgiven everything, and we are then clothed in Christ’s purity. The Holy Spirit regenerates us, imparting faith with which we grasp hold of the promises of Baptism (Catechism 2000).
The sign of the cross relates that in Baptism God has joined us to the death and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul vividly speaks of the connection between the baptized person and Christ: “Know you not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in his death? For we are buried together with him by baptism into death: that, as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. (Ro 6:3-4, Douay-Rheims)
For us, Baptism is not only a gift but a mission. The sign of the cross reminds us of whom we are to follow in our lives. In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther wrote about Baptism as a gift and a task: “Therefore every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to practice all his life; for he has always enough to do to believe firmly what it promises and brings: victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, the grace of God, Christ with all His works, and the Holy Spirit with His gifts. In short, it is so transcendent that if timid nature could realize it, it might well doubt whether it could be true.”
The sign of the cross is at one and the same moment the symbol of death and of hope. This world and also our own lives are every day burdened beneath the cross, beneath anguish, beneath despair. Evil and the existence of hell need no proof to modern people. The news coming from around the world carries the message of the crosses borne by peoples and nations. From the lives of our relatives and friends, even from our own lives, we are acutely aware that the various shadows cast by the cross darken our lives. Our cemeteries and obituaries are filled with crosses. At least in Finnish death announcements, the date of birth is marked with a star, that of death with a cross. None of us passes from beneath the cross, we cannot escape pain and suffering. We all shall once face the cross of death.
In this world, it is our task to bear one another’s crosses. As Christians, and as churches, we are called to be bearers of the cross, to carry the pain and anguish of our neighbors and our world. The sign of the cross calls us into solidarity with those whose are oppressed and exploited. The sign of the cross obligates us to work for justice, fairness, and equality for all people.
In the midst of the various crosses of life and as we face the final cross, we can, nevertheless, remember that the Man of the Cross into Whom we have been baptized is Jesus Christ. Long before we lived, Jesus Christ met up with and carried all the suffering, anguish, and sins of the world in His own person. Christ has already taken up, has borne, all our crosses.
In a moment we will sing the classic hymn of the Holy Mass: “Oh, Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.” Although we Lutherans cannot yet commune together with our Catholic sisters and brothers, we can, nevertheless, adore together our Lord, Who is present in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
One of the strongest ecumenical experiences in my memory took place in this very chapel eleven years ago when it was my turn to celebrate the Mass of Holy Communion. In accord with the liturgy, I had presented the invitation to receive Christ’s body and blood, the bread of life and the remedy of immortality. Then Cardinal Willebrands, who from the time of my studies in the 1960s was a greatly respected ecumenic, he rose from his pew right here in this church and came forward to the altar. Cardinal Willebrands came to kneel before the present Christ. I had the honor of blessing Him with the chalice making the sign of the cross.
How very near each other we Lutherans and Catholics are. Truly we know that there are many crosses before us. Our joint path is not straight, but bending, with potholes beneath our feet. Nevertheless, the sign of the cross, Christ’s own mark, brings us nearer each other. The sign of the cross binds us to each other. The same, shared Sacrament of Baptism has bound us together, and today the cross of Christ becomes real in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Behold the cross, the only hope. Ave crux, spes unica.