Following St. Therese on the Little Way of Loving Christ on the Cross, Exaltation of the Cross, September 14, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Basilica of St. Therese, Lisieux, France
Crypt Chapel
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Pilgrimage to the Saints and Shrines of France
September 14, 2013
Num 21:4-9, Ps 78, Phil 2:6-11, Jn 3:13-17

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:

(The first couple of minutes of the homily were not recorded, in which there was an introduction to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, how on this day we celebrate the Cross whereas on Good Friday when we venerate the Cross we do so with tears).  

The following points were attempted in the homily:

  • Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. This is different from the way we venerate the Cross on Good Friday, full of tears and sorrow. Today we recognize this is the new Tree of Life, the means by which Jesus himself was exalted and the way we, too, will be exalted if we follow him along the way of the Cross.
  • This is a feast that makes no sense to those without faith in Jesus. The Cross was a sign of terrible torture and execution. It would be like our having a feast of the exaltation of an electric chair, or a gun that killed a family member, on a bomb that blew up a sign, or the sword that chopped off St. Paul’s head, or the hatchet that flayed St. Bartholomew alive. But we recognize the Cross is not so much a thing of pain but of the love that makes even that much pain bearable.
  • God so loved the world, we hear in today’s Gospel, that he sent his only Son. This feast is is about that love. We celebrate the love that had Jesus humble himself, take on our nature, become in a sense our slave, becoming obedient even to death and not just any death but death on the Cross, but that’s how his love was exalted. We celebrate the love that fulfilled the first reading about the bronze serpent being lifted up on a pole. The Book of Numbers tells us that after the Israelites’ ‘infidelity in the desert, God allowed them to be bit by poisonous seraph serpents, but in his mercy, God bade Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole and anyone who looked at the source of what was killing them would be cured. That episode in salvation history would make little sense if it were not for the fulfillment in today’s Gospel when Jesus said that just as that serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. St. Paul said about Jesus that he who knew no sin because sin so that we might become the holiness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21). When we look at Jesus on the Cross, we see precisely what killed him and kills us, sin, and it is meant to bring us to repentance, to conversion. Jesus loved us so much that he allowed himself to become sin in order to save us, to make us holy, to make us anew capable of eternal life with him.
  • St. Paul’s whole message was about this love of Jesus on the Cross. He said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the cross is a scandal for the Jews (how could the Messiah who was supposed to drive out occupying forces be murdered by them in the most brutal way imaginable?) and foolishness for gentiles (how could any man who was wise and knew how to live allow himself to walk into such a trap) is for Christians with faith the power and the wisdom of God, the power of love triumphing over everything and a wisdom that helps one to live forever. St. Paul would say in his letter to the Galatians that he would boast and brag of nothing except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world was crucified to him and him to the world. That crucifixion was so thorough that Paul would say that he had been crucified with Christ and the life he now lived in the flesh he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and handed himself over for him. The love of Jesus on the Cross, in other words, because the love Paul himself would experience, as he himself would be multiply shipwrecked, scourged with 39 lashes on five occasions, stoned and left for dead, and imprisoned for years. So great was St. Paul’s identification with Christ’s cross that he would say that he bore in his own body the marks of Christ.
  • The power, wisdom and glory of the Cross is the summary of the life and teaching of St. Therese. When she was searching for what her vocation was, she saw that it was to be love in the heart of the Church her mother. That was not some vague sentimentalism, but it was to enter into Christ’s sacrificial love shown for us on the Cross, all that led to it, and all that flowed from it. St. There’s way of spiritual childhood encompasses this path of love and trust that we see in Jesus upon the Cross. It’s an entrance into Jesus’ own filiation, his own trust in the Father’s goodness, his own entrusting of his soul and all he was to the Father.
  • When you look at St. Therese’s poetry you see just how central sharing Christ’s love on the Cross is to all that she teaches us as a doctor of the Church. I’d like to focus on parts of four different poems that will help us to ponder her theology of the Cross and how this is the path to eternal exaltation.
  • In the first poem, she writes: “To live of love, ’tis not to fix one’s tent / On Tabor’s height and there with Thee remain. / ‘Tis to climb Calvary with strength nigh spent. / And count Thy heavy cross our truest gain.” Living by love means not to build booths to keep the consolation of the Transfiguration, in other words, but to enter with Jesus on Calvary and build our booth together with Jesus on the Cross. She continues, ” In heaven, my life a life of joy shall be / The heavy cross shall then be gone for aye. / Here upon earth, in suffering with Thee, Love! let me stay.” She begs to stay with Jesus in this crucified love in order to enter into Jesus’ eternal joy.
  • In the second poem, she stressed her desire to be crucified to the world and have the world crucified to her. “I long for suffering; and the cross / With strong desire my heart doth crave. / A thousand deaths were gain, not loss, / If but one soul I help to save!” This poem evokes what we sang in the last verse of our opening hymn, which I believe is the greatest stanza of any hymn that exists in the English language:  “Were the whole realm of nature mine, twas an offering far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” St. Therese had this desire to give all. In the mosaics on the right of this Crypt chapel, there’s the expression that she recognized as a young novice, “To love is to give all, it’s to give oneself.” She made that self-gift, holding nothing back, and wants to help and encourage us to do the same.
  • In her third poem, she builds on this notion to desire and love the Cross, because one desires and loves what Jesus loves. “Remember Thou that amorous complaint / Escaping from Thy lips on Calvary’s tree: / ‘I thirst!’ Oh, how my heart like Thine doth faint. / Yes, yes! I share Thy burning thirst with Thee. / The more my heart burns bright with Thy great Heart’s chaste fires, / The more I thirst for souls, to quench Thy Heart’s desires./ That with such love always I burn, by night, by day. Remember Thou!” She thirsted for what Jesus thirsts, which is the salvation of every person. That was what burned her insides, to share that love. Likewise, with us, we need to begin with a love, with a hunger, for God so strong that it makes us want we he wants and makes us capable, by his grace, of sacrificing for it as we see so often with the martyrs.
  • In the last poem, St. Therese teaches us very practically how to walk this way of the Cross. On the floor of this chapel, there are some diamond in-laid mosaics. In the one closest to the sanctuary, Jesus says in French, “If you love me,” and then in the second one it continues, “Come, follow me!” To love Jesus means to follow him along the path of love signified by the Cross. St. Therese did. The last poem shows us how she did, in the simple, little things of every day. “O Jesu! O my Love! Each eve I come to fling / Before Thy sacred Cross sweet flowers of all the year. By these plucked petals bright, my hands how gladly bring, I long to dry Thine every tear! To scatter flowers! — that means each sacrifice, / My lightest sighs and pains, my heaviest, saddest hours, / My hopes, my joys, my prayers, — I will not count the price. / Behold my flowers! / With deep, untold delight Thy beauty fills my soul. / Would I might light this love in hearts of all who live! / For this, my fairest flowers, all things in my control, How fondly, gladly I would give! / To scatter flowers! — behold my chosen sword / For saving sinners’ souls and filling heaven’s bowers. / The victory is mine: yes, I disarm Thee, Lord, With these my flowers!” Everything in her day she treated as a flower with which she would adorn Jesus with love on the Cross. All the little sacrifices of every day could be sanctified as an act of love, and that’s what she tried to do. That’s what she’d like to help us try to do.
  • The Cross is all about love, a love we’re supposed to embrace and a love we’re supposed to proclaim. We will sing at the end of Mass today, “Lift High the Cross the Love of God proclaim till all the world proclaim thy Holy Name.” That’s precisely what the Little Flower did.
  • The way St. Therese grew in love most was not just through the physical sufferings she endured with terrible tuberculosis at the end of her life and an unexplained lengthy illness at the beginning of her life. It wasn’t just through the death of her mother at the age of four and her father’s getting dementia at the end of his. It wasn’t merely through the dark night of the soul that tormented her over the last couple of years of her existence. It was mostly through the Mass. This is where the love of God, shown for us on the Cross, became real.
  • In religious life, she had two names that were very much connected: St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The reference to the baby Jesus is a clear reference to Jesus’ humanity. In the Eucharist, we adore and receive the same Jesus who was adored by the Magi, the Shepherd, Mary and Joseph and the angels in Bethlehem. The Holy Face points to Jesus’ blood, beaten, spat upon visage at the end of his life. It was here at the Eucharist that St. Therese grasped that continued incarnation of the Word made Flesh happens through suffering. She wrote in a poem about the Holy Face that it is in contemplating Jesus’ bloody face on the Cross in the Holy Eucharist that she learns how to imitate Jesus in this total self-giving love. ” My only wealth, Lord! is thy Face; / I ask naught else than this from Thee; / Hid in the secret of that Face, / The more I shall resemble Thee! / Oh, leave on me some impress faint / Of Thy sweet, humble, patient Face, / And soon I shall become a saint, / And draw men to Thy saving grace.” She saw that the way she would draw others to Christ was through her resemblance to his Sacred Face, a face that loves so much that it is willing to suffer. St. Therese wants to show us that face tonight and help us through this way of confidence and love to advance on the path to sanctity.
  • Sanctity is what everything is about. St. John of the Cross, whose writings St. Therese pondered very deeply, taught that we are on earth for no other purpose than to become saints. St. Therese said, however, that we can’t become half a saint. We can’t become holy only giving fifty percent. We need to give all, including giving ourselves, as she did. This is the path with love and trust as we receive God’s love outpoured, God’s wisdom and power, and as we glory in it, so that we might be crucified to the world and the world. Thi sis that path toward having the type of life in which we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us, and who gives us his flesh and blood right now so that we might become his face shining in the world. St. Therese responded to the love of the Lord by giving of herself in loving response.
  • Above the mosaic at the back of this crypt chapel are the last words she ever said, on September 30, 1897. “Je vous aime, O Mon Dieu, je vous aime!” I love you, O my God, I love you.” Those words were just a recapitulation of what she had been saying her entire life long. May she help us to echo those same words every day of our life, so that our entire existence may be loving throwing flowers with Therese at the foot of the Lord’s sacred and triumphant Cross!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

A reading from the Book of Numbers (Num 21:4-9)
With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. The word of the Lord.

Responsorial Psalm — Do not forget the works of the Lord! (Ps 78)

Hearken, my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter mysteries from of old.

While he slew them they sought him and inquired after God again,
Remembering that God was their rock and the Most High God, their redeemer.

But they flattered him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues,
Though their hearts were not steadfast toward him, nor were they faithful to his covenant.

But he, being merciful, forgave their sin and destroyed them not;
Often he turned back his anger and let none of his wrath be roused.

A Reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians (2:6-11)
Brothers and sisters: Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The word of the Lord.

Alleluia — “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world”

A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to John (Jn 3:13-17)
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The Gospel of the Lord.