Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
September 14, 2014
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 following text guided the homily:
Consciously living a Cruciform Life
Today we celebrate what Saint John Paul II used to call 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 start 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 the Pope, to teenage pop stars, to newly baptized babies. 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.” If we wish to get to eternal life with God, we must climb up with Jesus by means of the Cross. We celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, because this is the day in 335 when the relics of the true Cross that had been miraculously rediscovered nine years earlier were brought outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for public veneration. 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 feast existentially, allowing its meaning to penetrate our daily life. In order to do so, however, we first need to grasp better the shocking aspect of what we’re doing.
The Shock of the Cross
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 exclusively a symbol of pain and horrible death. Crucifixion was the worst and most cruel end 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 jubilation. 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 convulsing and dying in an electric chair or placing a sculpture of someone baying and broiling at being burned at the stake. We’ve become so used to seeing the Cross that we’ve become somewhat anaesthetized to the normal shock that should be any person’s first reaction to it and we need to recover a little of the initial human horror we should have before the Cross.
There’s a story of a young boy who was a huge troublemaker in school from the time he was in kindergarten. He had been expelled from several public schools for bad behavior. His parents were at their wits’ end. Even though they weren’t Christian and didn’t understand anything about Christianity, they enrolled their son at the Catholic elementary school in town as the last resort. Both the parents and the religious sisters who ran the school were expecting discipline problems, but strangely none came. After about a month in which their son had been acting like an angel in school, his mother and father told them that they were really happy at how well behaved he was and how well he was doing with all his school work. With a smile they asked him if he would tell them what had brought about this positive change in him. “As soon as I got into the first class,” he told them, “I looked up and on top of the blackboard, they put this statue of a man stripped to his underwear and nailed to two-by-fours. I knew that that at this school they don’t fool around and I didn’t want to misbehave and become the next person for that to happen to!” Sometimes we’ve lost this sense of what someone looking at the Cross for the first time should think.
This is one reason 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. Because that derision was still happening even centuries after his death, many of the first Christians were somewhat embarrassed by the Cross and didn’t use it as a popular Christian symbol until the 300s. Today, there are still some Christians who are embarrassed by the Cross. We see it in those Catholic schools and universities who have removed the Cross from classrooms lest anyone be “offended.” We’ve seen it in Catholic hospitals who have removed them from patients’ rooms even though in the hospital people need to derive meaning from their sufferings from uniting them to Christ’s. We’ve seen them in various “modern” Catholic parishes that, instead of putting up a Crucifix in the sanctuary as is required in every Church, they erect an image of the Risen Jesus, as if that “book” of St. Francis no longer had anything to teach. Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, too, but there’s a reason why the Church requires a Crucifix instead of a sculpture of the Resurrected Jesus: it’s because the Risen Jesus is a sign of the fact of his triumph over sin and death but a Crucifix is the image of his unbelievable love for us.
The Cross’ true message
The Cross, for believers, is not so much a symbol of pain, but rather of the Love that made even that much suffering worth it. Jesus said during the Last Supper, “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” and that’s precisely what Jesus as our Good Shepherd did when he gave his own life on the Cross so that we, might live. The Cross is a picture not principally of agonizing suffering but of this mind-blowing love of God for us. St. Paul — after he stated that the Cross is a scandal to the Jews and a folly to everyone else — declared 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, St. John tells us, “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.” As one great mystic said, each of Jesus’s five wounds are like a pair of lips saying, “I love you this much!” God’s love was so great that he was willing to bear such torture and death for each of us. St. Paul 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 is 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.”
Pope Francis summarized both the shock and the saving love of the Cross in his Angelus meditation earlier this morning in St. Peter’s Square. He asked, “Why was the Cross necessary?,” and answered, “because of the gravity of the evil we were enslaved to. The Cross of Jesus expresses two things: all the negative strength of evil, and all gentle omnipotence of the mercy of God. The Cross seems to declare the failure of Jesus, but in reality it marks his victory. On Calvary, those who mocked him would say to him: ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’ (cf. Mt. 27,40). But the opposite was true: precisely because he was the Son of God, Jesus was there, on the cross, faithful to the end to the loving plan of the Father. It is precisely this reason why God ‘exalted’ Jesus (Phil. 2,9), conferring on Him a universal kingship.” Pope Francis then described how we should prayerfully look at Jesus on the Cross. “What do we see, then, when we turn our gaze towards the Cross where Jesus was nailed? We contemplate the sign of the infinite love of God for each and every one of us and the roots of our salvation. From that Cross flows the mercy of the Father who embraces the whole world. Through the cross of Christ, evil is overcome, death is defeated, life is given to us, hope is restored.”
Embracing the Cross
But the reason why the Church gives us this Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is not just so that look at the Cross physically and ponder its meaning spiritually. It’s not so that we remain stunned at beholding the One we have pierced. When we truly confront the reality of the Cross, we cannot remain a detached bystander. On Good Friday, as you know, we all process up the nave 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, as we heard two weeks ago, “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. As St. Rose of Lima told us earlier, there is no other ladder to heaven but the ladder of the Cross. To be a disciple means to embrace the Cross.
To embrace the way of the Cross means first to forsake the way of sin because we see what our sins have done. In today’s first reading, after the Jews were unfaithful in the desert, God sent among them poisonous saraph serpents, which led the Israelites to remember that just like Adam and Eve had gone the way of sin by means of the machinations of the devil in the disguise of a serpent, so, too, they had forsaken the Lord. The people turned to Moses to intercede for them with God to save their lives. Moses prayed and God had him make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, saying that whoever looked at this serpent on a pole will live. They were going to have to face-up to what was killing them, that they had chosen to follow the way of sin, and after having acknowledged that and having turn prayerfully to God for forgiveness they would be saved. That was a prophetic act to what would happen with Jesus on the Cross. Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “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.” Just as with the snake bitten Israelites in the desert, so we have been bitten by the poison of sin, we have negotiated with the ancient serpent and chosen against God. We need to come face-to-face with our own sins, seeing what they did to Jesus, and then with real contrition turn to the Lord for salvation. We do this not just as an antidote to the poison in the moment of suffering, but to lead us through the desert of life all the way to the eternal repose. To embrace the way of the Cross means to reject the life of sin and commit ourselves to following the life of grace.
The second thing that embracing the Cross means is that it commits us to the path of self-sacrificial love. Many Catholics when they hear Jesus’ command to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Jesus think that it means “offering up” their hardships, their difficulties, their pain, and 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 selfless self-giving 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 and love others through 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 so that his self-sacrificial love might reign 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 and Christ himself wants 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 was alluding to this reality when he said to the first Christians in Colossae, “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 really live as his disciples, picking up our Crosses every day, dying to ourselves on them, and allowing the Risen Christ to live in us and to unite ourselves to his redemptive work.
Exalting the Cross each day
To some this might seem like a new mystery or something too theologically deep, 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 were marked by the priest, our parents and our godparents with the Sign of the Cross and then sacramentally died in Christ and he rose from the dead within us. The Christian life is a school of the Cross from our first day as a Christian; the Cross of Jesus that we carry within is at the heart of the mystery of God’s love and 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 children, grandchildren, godchildren and others, 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.
In the bulletin this week, I’ve printed a reflection on the importance of praying the Sign of the Cross we make so many times over the course of a day. It focuses on how St. Bernadette was taught how to pray the Sign of the Cross well from the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes and how our patroness never ceased to teach everyone, including fellow religious sisters, that same lesson. The first time our patroness saw our Lady in the Grotto of Massabielle, on February 11, 1848, she tried to make the Sign of the Cross just in case the image she was seeing was of the devil, but she was prevented. He had was paralyzed and she couldn’t move it, something that made her even more afraid. But once the “Vision” had made the Sign of the Cross, she tried again and she could do it and she became calm. On subsequent appearances, St. Bernadette would make the Sign of the Cross together with Mary and tried to imitate precisely how Mary made it with profound reverence and recollection. After the apparitions, when Bernadette was subjected to the endless line of interviews from people seeking to get her to divulge all that Mary had revealed to her, she would often become reticent about many of the details. She would readily respond, however, when her interrogators asked her to show them how Our Lady demonstrated to make the Sign of the Cross. When she became a Sister of Charity of Nevers, St. Bernadette continued to make the Sign of the Cross as Mary had taught her. It often brought other sisters, accustomed to making the Sign of the Cross routinely and without much thought, to conversion. One sister said, “She couldn’t stand to see others make it poorly. One day, when I had made it very negligently, she asked me if I had hurt my arm or was in a hurry.” St. Bernadette sought to make the Sign of the Cross as she had witnessed the Blessed Mother make it: slowly, in a sweeping gesture, raising her right hand so that her fingers touched to the very top of her forehead, then lowering her hands to touch her waist, and then slowly touching the extreme of her left shoulder followed by her right. She did so entrusting herself to the Three Persons of the Trinity Whose name she would invoke, while opening herself up to the infinite graces Christ gained for us on the Cross and committing herself to embrace her daily Cross and follow Christ as a new Simon of Cyrene.
When Pope Benedict went to Lourdes in 2008 for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, he spoke about what St. Bernadette teaches us all about this feast and how we live it every time we make this most distinctive Christian gesture. “At Lourdes, in the school of Mary,” Pope Benedict said, “pilgrims learn to consider the Cross in their own lives in the light of the glorious cross of Christ. In appearing to Bernadette, the first gesture of Mary was precisely the Sign of the Cross, in silence and without words. And Bernadette imitated her in making also the Sign of the Cross with a trembling hand. Thus, the Virgin gave a first initiation into the essence of Christianity: the Sign of the Cross is the summit of our faith, and in making it with an attentive heart, we enter into the fullness of the mystery of our salvation.”
If St. Bernadette were here today to teach us the path to heaven, she would seek to teach us how to enter into the Triumph of the Cross several times a day by praying devoutly this most characteristic of all Christian gestures. When a novice, a young sister, asked her what she needed to do to go to heaven, St. Bernadette without hesitation replied, “Make the Sign of the Cross well. That in itself is already a great deal.” She wants us to make it a big deal, to pray it with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, because when we do, we are entering into the heart of our faith and the Christian life, being fortified to receive the graces Jesus won for us on the Cross and strengthening our resolve to make our whole life a sign of the Cross.
Finding our Hope in the Cross
The early Christians used to say and sing, “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 sacrificial triumph on the Cross, we would have no hope of eternal salvation; and 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 ladder Jesus made to lead us upward to heaven, but it’s also a ladder we must embrace and climb. The Cross is the world’s greatest love story but we need to grasp that we are a central character in that romance.
The message of the love of the Cross that we receive and share, we’re called to proclaim from the rooftops. It’s the most important message we can preach because it is the summary and essence of the Gospel. 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 we prayed to begin our Mass today 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 adore his holy name!” And we lift it highest, we proclaim it most eloquently, when we live it most! And insofar as the vast majority of the human raise is not yet adoring Christ’s holy name, we need to lift it higher and proclaim it more loudly in loving deeds than we ever have until now.
The greatest way for us to be strengthened in living the mystery of the Cross is here at the Mass, in which we share live in the sacrifice of Christ that began at the Last Supper and was consummated on the Cross, when he gave his body and his blood for us and our salvation. To celebrate the Mass is to exalt the Cross, to echo Jesus’ words “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” “given for you.” The connection between the Cross and the Mass indelibly impressed upon a priest on the day of his priestly ordination. Right after he has become a priest by the bishop’s laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the new priest kneels in front of his 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 an instruction applicable to each of us. Know what you are doing — we’re about to enter into the greatest reality a human being can share, as we prepare to receive the fruit of the Tree of the Cross, Jesus himself. Imitate the mystery you celebrate — which is the call to live the Eucharist, to become whom we eat, to emulate the self-giving love enfleshed in the Eucharist. And finally: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross. Today God wants to give us the help he knows we need to base our entire existence on the love we celebrate on the Cross, so that we may not only experience in this world a foretaste of Christ’s victory upon this new Tree of Life, but come by his grace to be exalted together with him upon it eternally.
Today at the consecration, I will hold Jesus aloft a little bit longer than normal and I would encourage you to say to Jesus what we sang for the Alleluia verse and Christians are accustomed to say throughout Lent: “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, for by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world!” This is what we celebrate today. Ave, O Crux, Spes Unica! Amen.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
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.
ps 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
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.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
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.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
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.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
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.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
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.
“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.