Holy Cross Day, ECW Fall Meeting, St. Andrew’s Church at Diocesan House

“To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Is. 45:23).

The court room or the battlefield: two places I wouldn’t want to be, at least not as a contestant. My limited experience with courts tells me that the turning of the wheels of justice is uncertain in its result, and a cause for anxiety; and without any experience of war I can only reflect on the destruction and trauma that are caused by it. The two experiences are presumably not the same, and every situation is different; yet most of us would hesitate before putting ourselves in either context.

This, however, is exactly the setting for our first reading today, on the Feast of the Holy Cross. As so often in the prophet Isaiah, the context is a notional court room, a vision of a grand assize in which God is the complainant who presents a claim. It’s a civil rather than a criminal action, and the other parties are the nations that surround Israel. The question before the court is: who in fact is God? Who’s in charge of the universe? Who holds history in his hand? “Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together!” (Is. 45:21), as it says in our reading. God’s brief is clear: “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is no one besides me” (Is. 45:21). God gives his affidavit in court, as we hear: “By myself I have sworn…” (Is. 45:23); but of course, he can only swear by himself.

Alongside this vision of the courtroom lies the other, the vision of the battlefield. The verse immediately preceding our reading makes that plain: “Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations” (Is. 45:20). The context is the defeat of the nations and the foreign peoples. In the history of Israel, we see the great empires wax and wane: Assyria, Babylon, Persia and the rest. Each one has its enemies and is replaced by the next. The prophets see that after the fall of the nations and their gods, God alone remains. Those who opposed God will be rounded up after the battle like prisoners of war: as it says in our reading today, “All who were incensed against him shall come to him and be ashamed” (Is. 45:24).

Courtroom and battlefield provide the setting of Isaiah’s vision, but the prophetic word sets worldly experience on its head. Those on the wrong end of judgment are losers, we all know that, but the prophetic vision has more to say. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Is. 45:22). The prophet announces salvation for the defeated remnant of the peoples, for those who have lost their case. Instead of prison there is hope. The gods of the nations may have turned out to be worthless, but now God will be King of all the earth. The message is that now, everyone will come and worship him. “From my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (Is. 45:23).

It’s this last verse from Isaiah that sets up our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Here we find the meaning of the festival of the Holy Cross. Paul writes to the members of the church in Philippi about Jesus becoming a servant, a slave, for their sake. “Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). The cross of Jesus reveals the Son of God as One willing to take his place with the losers, to be identified with them. God raises him to life, highly exalts him in fact, and he becomes the source of eternal salvation for all who believe in him. As the ancient antiphon puts it, “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.”

St. Paul ends the section with words that echo those of the prophet Isaiah. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). In other words, the mystery of Jesus’ cross draws all peoples, tongues, and nations, together in worship and proclamation. Worship, because of the salvation that has been given as a gift; proclamation on account of the good news of what God has done that needs to be shared.

This is the work we are engaged in today, as members of the church; as Episcopal Church Women and other well wishers who are gathered today on this Feast of the Holy Cross. We come to worship, but we leave to proclaim: the good news of what God has done for us through the cross of Jesus Christ.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee