This Life-Giving, Holy and Terrible Sign

Perhaps the greatest gift that poets and artists give to us is the ability to see familiar things in new ways.

In so doing they give us the gift of newness and freshness, they restore to us the vitality of our familiar possessions.

The description “this life-giving, holy and terrible sign” had such an effect on me.

The writer, Joceline of Furness, a 12th century monk, used this phrase to describe the Crosses erected by Saint Kentigern everywhere he took the gospel to people.

Life-Giving :
There is a paradox in that this Roman instrument of torture and execution has been turned around by God and now becomes a source of life and healing. Doesn’t that just sum up the Christian faith!

Holy :
The cross is the instrument by which God both showed us the awful enormity of our sin and also dealt with it, once and for all. After the cross event there is only one kind of sin in the world – forgiven sin. We just need to receive this forgiveness which is freely offered to all who will take it. We take off our shoes and fall on our faces, this is sacred ground.

Terrible :
This is used in its arcane meaning indicating that which inspires awe, which is of great seriousness or extreme.

As I read on, it was interesting to read why Saint Kentigern erected these crosses.

“…so the enemies of the human race, the powers of darkness of this world, melting away in terror before this sign, might disappear and in terror and confusion might be banished far away.”

The first reason is that of spiritual warfare. Christ’s victory is the only victory the Church has, or needs. It is only in presenting the reality of this victory to the dark powers that we defeat them.

“…that the soldiers of the Eternal King, recognizing by a glance the unconquerable standard of their Chief, should fly to it, as to a tower of strength, from the face of the enemy”

The cross is a rallying point, the reminder of our unshakeable victory, already won by Christ. The battles we find ourselves in might be fierce, but the outcome of the war is never in doubt.

“…that they should have before their eyes that which they adore and in which they glory”

The cross symbolises all that is central in the Christian faith; all that is precious to the faithful.

“…as … the wrestling against spiritual wickedness in high places, and against the fiery darts of the evil one, is continual, it is meet that they should fortify and protect themselves by signing themselves with this sign”

Looking to the cross, signing oneself with it, have been basic elements of Christian spirituality since its first days. They are weapons in our warfare.

“…and by imitating the Passion of Christ … they should, for the love of the Crucified One, crucify the flesh with its vices and lusts, and the world to them, and themselves unto the world.”

The cross also sums up the calling of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer famously wrote,

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The calling and duty of the followers of Christ is to respond to their Lord’s crucifixion with their own. We are called to kill in us all that is unworthy or opposed to the life of God in its radical holiness.

As Constantine was told in a vision, “In hoc signo vinces” – In this sign you will conquer.


Come and Die


Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said; “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

Having read much of the current debate on human sexuality, gay ‘marriage’ etc. it strikes me that much of the debate around this issue misses the point.

The Christian faith is not about self-affirmation, but about self-denial.

The fundamental truth Christian disciples recognize is that God has the right to ask me to give up anything He wants.

I have nothing I did not receive from Him.

Every beat of my heart, every breath, every potential that exists in me, is a gift, is His.

Therefore all that I am already belongs to Him.

Christian is the active expression of this knowledge – I am His and He is free to dispose of me how He wills.

This is what St Paul meant when he talked of Christians being “living sacrifices”.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 NIV

In terms of sexuality, the Church used to affirm those whom God called to give up sexual fulfillment – priests and religious and even some lay people have felt this particular call. We used to celebrate it. To value it. To hold it up as a positive thing. To name it a pleasing sacrifice. To honour those who felt called of God to make it.

Now, it appears, that is no longer possible.

Without sexual fulfillment we are sub-humans, non-humans. Those who respond to God’s costly call in this area of life are ridiculed, scorned, pitied.

Jesus Himself knew the cost of sacrifice, not only in celibacy, but in martyrdom. He calls no-one to any sacrifice He hasn’t Himself made, and then some.

Jesus also knows that human sexuality is a continuum,

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:12 NIV

Letting God be God is the greatest challenge of Christian discipleship.

In the area of sexuality God does not affirm ALL sexual practice. Only that of heterosexual couples within married relationships.

There are also those who God calls to sacrifice this part of their humanity for the sake of the Kingdom. But such sacrifices are always positive. God is never any man’s debtor.

The primary goal of human life is to develop a relationship with God.

Therefore any sacrifice God calls upon us to make will inevitably lead to this. There will be the reward of deeper intimacy with Him in this life and who knows what in the next.

People often state that their sexual feelings were given them by God. However Christian faith is not a matter of feelings, but revelation. What does God say about how we should live? The answer is clear – regardless of any feelings I might have.

I can personally testify that I rarely feel like doing the will of God in any area of my life. If I let my feelings be the arbiter I would have abandoned the Christian faith decades ago.

God calls us all – whatever our feelings – to radical holiness. And He has every right to do so. He decides what is good for man, not man.

I don’t underestimate the pain and cost of anyone’s sacrifice – especially not my own. However it cost God His own son. Anything He calls us to give pales by comparison. And everything He calls us to give up will ultimately prove to have been worth the cost. Otherwise God would not be loving, nor would He have our best interests at heart – which is impossible.