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  • Reverend James Squire

The Cross

The demolition of St Laurentius Church in Fishtown began this week. Seeing the steeple in the newspaper which was brought down first reminded me of what occurred at Christ Chapel at the Episcopal Academy after I rendered the building not sacred with a service to deconsecrate the chapel. We knew that it would not be used as a place for religious services when St. Joseph’s University took over the property after they purchased our school to be part of their expanded campus.

One of the controversies that was part of leaving the Chapel on the Merion Campus to have a new chapel on the Newtown Square Campus was that there were significant emotional and spiritual ties to members of the EA community to that place. A new flashpoint was a consideration of what to do with the cross that hung in Christ Chapel. The architects didn’t think that the cross fit because it was too big or not big enough to go in the new chapel. They preferred their own structure to go in the new chapel. One of our board members who spoke for many in the community thought that it should be moved to the new campus. The stained-glass windows and pulpit as well as wood from the pews were already to be part of the move as we wanted to take important parts of the chapel to the new campus. This was to merge the new with the old.

It was decided that the cross would be moved as well. Christ Chapel was the first religious structure in Philly to be designed with the cross and altar in the center. Students from all faiths viewed the cross during the chapel services that occurred every other day. It was central.

It is interesting when you hear student perspectives on what occurred in worship in chapel as well as what it was like to see that cross day in and day out. I remember several chapel addresses by students on what that was like for them. You have to work closely with students to see their perspective. One student when he was a senior and a lifer calculated the number of hours and minutes that he was in chapel for worship. It was a lot. But there was another address which I remember most clearly when we were in our new chapel because some people would feel that he was sacrilegious if they didn’t stay for his entire address.

He began by being honest. He worried about what would happen if that cross, which was hung in the center as well, fell. He might not be able to get out of the way. He went further in his address to talk about how you couldn’t avoid seeing it and therefore you couldn’t avoid having your life affected by it. It was like the rudder on a ship steering you in the right direction in your faith. It was a given. It was always there. It wasn’t going anywhere so it didn’t make sense to fear if it fell.

When we were removing various items from the Merion Campus Chapel, I was present when the cross was taken down and laid carefully along the drive which surrounded the chapel. If we had a lottery to guess how large it was when resting on the ground, many including me would have lost. The Merion Campus Chapel had a high vaulted ceiling so the cross seemed large as it hung above us, but perspective changes things. It seemed to be at least twice the size when it rested on the ground. It was a dramatic difference of perspective and impact. Resting on the drive, you couldn’t avoid it. But like our faith when it comes nearer to us and can’t be avoided by some challenge in life, is when it looms the largest and makes the biggest impact. Our choice is to keep the cross at a distance by our perspective or to not avoid its impact as that perspective literally brings it closer to us and its size makes all the difference. It can make a big difference in our lives.

Since the cross is symbolic of both crucifixion and resurrection, it reminds us that life lived contains both suffering and hope as we face the challenges that come our way and hope does have the final say about how we live our lives knowing that they will contain an abundance of suffering that come as an unwelcomed guest always at the wrong time.

The student wondering if the cross will fall on him knew that he would have to suffer at some point in his life but the cross gives us direction and hope that is just as important as when vulnerability arrives for the cross can also bring with it a feeling of being surprised by hope and joy!

I wish “surprised by joy and hope” for Rebecca Blank who was to become President of Northwestern University where one of my sons attended. She was to start on July 11, 2022. She informed the university that the week before she was diagnosed with an “aggressive form of cancer that would require the most aggressive chemotherapy.” She was told that she couldn’t do the treatment and run the university at the same time. She had to resign her position so that she could return to Wisconsin to begin her treatment. She was surprised by suffering. We hope and pray that she will be surprised by hope and joy.

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