Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Exaltation of the Cross, Year B
September 14, 2003
Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17
1) Today we celebrate what Pope John Paul II has called THE symbol of Christianity. Most of us would have marked ourselves with it upon entering the Church. We began Mass with it. We’ll end Mass with it. We begin almost every time of prayer with it. Probably every one of our bedrooms and dining rooms has one in it. All types of people wear it around their necks, from Pope John Paul II to teenage rock stars. The priest holds his arms in the shape of it during the Eucharistic prayer. And it is the center and focal point of every Catholic Church. We are talking about the Cross. The Cross is the greatest summary of our faith. St. Francis of Assisi used to call it his “book,” where he learned all of his wisdom. The Cross is also the key that opens the doors of heaven. St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, said, “Apart from the Cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” We celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, because this is the day in 320 when St. Helen rediscovered the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, soon after her son Constantine the emperor legalized Christianity. Because September 14 falls on a Sunday on average only once every seven years, only daily communicants regularly celebrate this feast liturgically. But we’re all called to celebrate this great feast in our lives. To celebrate it well, however, we have to understand what it means and what it doesn’t mean.
2) To non-believers, to celebrate the feast of the Cross makes no sense at all. It is sheer lunacy. To those who don’t believe, the Cross is just a symbol of pain and horrible death. Crucifixion was the worst and most cruel death imaginable in the ancient world. The modern day equivalent would be the electric chair. To celebrate or “exalt” the Cross would be akin to our “lifting up the electric chair” in celebration. To center every Church with an image of Christ’s suffering on the Cross would be similar to constructing a place of worship in which one would put a gruesome image of someone burning and dying in an electric chair. That’s why St. Paul wrote that Christ on the Cross is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” The pagans used to mock the early Christians for worshipping someone who was killed on the Cross, who suffered such a horrible, ignoble end, the object of derision that continues even after his death. It led some Christians to be embarrassed by the Cross, such that they seldom used it as a symbol until the 300s. Today, still, some Christians are embarrassed by the Cross, such as some Catholic colleges and institutions that have removed the Cross from their classrooms, as if that “book” of St. Francis no longer had anything to teach.
3) But to real believers, the Cross is not so much a symbol of pain, but rather of the Love that made even that much pain bearable. Jesus said during the Last Supper, “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” The Good Shepherd showed this love when he gave his own life on the Cross so that his sheep might live. The Cross is a picture of how much God loves us. St. Paul, after he stated that the Cross is a scandal to the Jews and a folly to the gentiles, said that “to those who are called, the Crucified Christ is the ‘power of God and the wisdom of God.’” Christ on the cross manifests the power of Christ’s love and the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation. In today’s Gospel, we read what we’ll see later this afternoon on football stands across the country: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God so loved the world. Each of Jesus’s five wounds are like a pair of lips saying, “I love you!” God’s love was so great that he was willing to bear such torture and death for each of us. The Apostle from Tarsus tells us in the second reading that even though Jesus was God, “he didn’t deem equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave… And being born in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient even unto death, death on a Cross.” The Cross was the great sign of God’s humility. Real love is willing to do anything for the beloved, and God was willing not just to come down from heaven and take on our human nature, but to allow those he created, those he was about to redeem, to torture, abuse and kill him in order to save them and us. Jesus was willing out of love to undergo everything we might undergo as human beings, even worse. Whatever pain we might suffer, Christ suffered more. Whatever injustice we might bear, Christ bore it before us. Whatever loneliness we experience, Jesus felt it too. This is what led the writer of the Letter of the Hebrews to exclaim one of the most consoling truths in all of Sacred Scripture: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way that we are, yet never sinned.”
4) But the reason why the Church gives us this feast of the exaltation of the Cross is not just so that we can merely behold the One we have pierced. When we truly confront the reality of what the Cross means, we cannot remain a detached bystander. On Good Friday, all of us process up, humbly without shoes, genuflect and venerate the Cross with a kiss. In order truly to venerate the Cross, however, we need to do more than just kiss it. We need to EMBRACE it as a way of life. That’s what Jesus clearly WANTS us to do and CALLS us to do. He never said to us, “I’m taking up the Cross so that you don’t have to.” Rather he said, “If you wish to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, pick up your Cross every day, and follow me” and “whoever does not pick up the Cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” We’re here because we want to be the disciples of the Lord, we want to follow him all the way to heaven. But to do this, we need to follow him to Calvary, we need to walk the Way of the Cross. To be a disciple, as Archbishop O’Malley stressed in his installation homily a month ago in Boston, means to embrace the Cross. Many Catholics when they hear this command think that embracing the Cross means “offering up” their hardships, their difficulties, their pain, bearing with peaceful resignation the contradictions of the day. That is part of it, but, actually, a small part of it. To embrace the Cross means to kiss Christ’s love and to imitate it. Jesus said, in the greatest of all commandments, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Picking up our Cross and following the Lord means following him down the path of self-giving sacrificial love. Jesus, in fact, gives us the Cross so that we, like him, might DIE on it, die to ourselves for others, so that he might live fully in us. That point is a crucial one, so I’ll repeat it: the Lord gave us the Cross so that we might die to ourselves on it and ALLOW HIM TO LIVE IN US. This is exactly what St. Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” We want Christ to live in us, but the only way that happens is to be crucified with him through the gift of the Cross. The most beautiful reality is that when we do this, we not only abide in Christ and he in us — and share in the fullness of salvation — but we become co-redeemers with Christ. St. Paul experienced this reality as well, when he said, “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross — which saved the world — always intended to be united to our sacrifices united with him on the Cross. That’s what occurs when we are his disciples, picking up our Crosses every day, dying to ourselves on them, so that he might live in us and we may co-redeem with him.
5) This might seem like a new mystery and overly theological, but it is a reality that we have been living for as long as we have been Catholic. It is a reality that began on the day we were baptized, when we died in Christ and he rose from the dead within us. It is the heart of the mystery of God and the heart of the mystery of our faith. This is why when we enter Church we unite three gestures — holy water, the renewal of our baptism; the sign of the Cross; and the calling upon our Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every time we make that gesture, and every time we teach it to our children and grandchildren, we should call to mind how all three go together: that in baptism, we have died with Christ on the Cross, but raised into the divine life of the Trinity, the communion of three persons in love. The Cross is the supreme symbol of this triune love.
6) The early Christians used to say, “Ave, O Crux, Spes Unica!,” “Hail, O Cross, our Only Hope.” The cross is our only hope in two ways. First, because without Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we would have no hope of eternal salvation. But second, because unless we pick up our Cross every day to unite ourselves to God, we have no hope of salvation either. The Cross is the world’s greatest love story and we are a central character in it. We’re called to proclaim it from the rooftops. And this is the most important message we can preach. St. Paul, the greatest evangelist who ever lived, after many eloquent homilies had a conversion. As he wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to preach nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” To preach Christ crucified, this incredible reality of God’s love, is our common mission. The great Catholic hymn, which we will sing at the end of Mass, puts on our lips and in our hearts and souls how to do this: “Lift High the Cross, the Love of Christ proclaim, until all the world proclaim his holy name!” And we lift it highest when we live it most. The greatest way for us to be strengthened in living it is here at the Mass, in which we share live in the sacrifice of Christ which began at the Last Supper and was consummated on the Cross. Right after a new priest is ordained by the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the new priest kneels in front of the bishop, who puts in his hands the chalice and paten with bread and says: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” The latter part of that prayer is applicable to each of us. Know what you are doing — we’re about to enter into the greatest reality a human being can share. Imitate the mystery you celebrate — live the Eucharist, become whom you eat, emulate the self-giving love found in the Eucharist. And finally: model your entire life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross. With God’s help, received through this great sacrament, let’s get to work!