Holy Cross Day
13 September 2015
Holy Cross Day is not typically a day on which the church celebrates baptisms, but it is, in fact, very appropriate to do so, because baptism does not make any sense apart from the cross. In baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death on the cross and raised to new life with him. So this morning, I’d like to reflect a bit on the essential connection between the cross and baptism.
At the last church I served, in Washington, DC, there was a soft-spoken man with a sly smile, whom I was surprised to discover was quite well known on the internet for his scholarly essays on the saints and church history. His name was James E. Kiefer, and he wrote something that I consider to be particularly illuminating about the connection between the cross and baptism. He begins his essay not, as I would have expected, with Jesus and the crucifixion, but with the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, writing,
The Christian custom of tracing the sign of the cross on persons and things as a sign of blessing is very old…In Ezekiel 9, we read that Ezekiel had a vision…in which an angel was sent to go through Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of the faithful few who mourned for the sins of the city…Now, the Hebrew word used for “mark” in Ezekiel is Tau, which is the also the name of the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the ancestor of the Greek letter Tau and our letter T), and it refers to a mark like an X or a +, two short lines crossing at right angles.
He then segues in this essay to the Essenes, a sect of the Jews who flourished around the time of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who are most famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls. He continues,
When the Essenes…received converts into their community, they baptized them and then signed them on their foreheads with a Tau, in token that they were part of the faithful remnant who mourned the sins of Israel, and that they would be spared in the day of God’s wrath. It seems probable that John the Baptist and his followers were in some measure influenced by the Essenes, and they had certainly read Ezekiel. Accordingly, the tracing of a Tau on the forehead may have been a part of John’s method of baptism…Later, Christians…[understood] it to be the sign of the Cross of Christ, and it is this interpretation that has prevailed. Today, in many Christian churches, when someone is baptized, the baptizer afterwards traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized person. Often, some of the water that has been used for baptism is saved and placed in small bowls near the entrance to the church. Worshippers entering the church touch the surface of the water and then cross themselves as a way of reaffirming their baptismal covenant…
So the connection between the cross and baptism can be seen in the very act that many of us do every time we enter church, whenever we cross ourselves with holy water. This gesture reminds us of our baptism and affirms our deepest identity as children of God who have been “marked as Christ’s own for ever,” in the words of the baptismal liturgy [we will celebrate at 10].
By way of analogy, James Kiefer writes, “we often place our initials…on something to show that it belongs to us. The Cross is the personal mark of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we mark it on ourselves as a sign that we belong to Him…” He goes on to quote a preacher who once said that if you were teaching someone how to make the sign of the cross, you would instruct them thusly: “‘Draw an I and then cross it out.’ As we make the sign, we first draw a vertical stroke, as if to say to God, ‘Lord, here am I.’ Then we cancel it with a horizontal stroke, as if to say, ‘Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will, and to make you the center of my life instead. Fix all my attention and all my desire on you, Lord, that I may forget my self, cancel my self, abandon myself completely to your love and service.’”
What a wonderful image that prayer gives us of the relationship between the cross and baptism. In baptism, our identity is made cruciform. No longer does the “I” reign supreme, but the One who was lifted up high upon the cross in order to draw all people to himself. We offer our entire selves to the One who offered his entire self for us.
Parents who bring their children for baptism, and the godparents who undertake to share in the sacred duty of helping form those children as people of faith, are thus engaging in something very profound. We live in a society that too often tends to put the ego, the “I” ahead of everything else. Our society does not do the best job of teaching just what it means to offer ourselves to each other in mutual self-giving. Even the church itself fails to teach this essential aspect of true love in its actions as well as its words, at least from time to time. Nobody’s perfect. But baptism sets before us a pattern and example for living as Christ himself lived, and died, and lives again: in mutual self-giving.
So my prayer this morning is that all of us will be able to sign ourselves with the water of baptism with that same prayer: “Lord, here am I” and “Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will, and to make you the center of my life instead. Fix all my attention and all my desire on you, Lord, that I may forget my self, cancel my self, abandon myself completely to your love and service.” For if we pray this again and again, we will learn what it means to love others as God in Christ loves us. In connecting the cross to our baptisms, we will learn what it means to “walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”
 Cf. John 12:32
 Ephesians 5:2