Even Death on the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  The second Mass reading for today is the beautiful plea to humility in the Letter to the Philippians:

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.

Theodore of Studios wrote this: “How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss.” An instrument of torture becomes a tree of life!

Why do we continue to celebrate the cross? Christ gave us the answer to that: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”  Today is not just about looking at and celebrating what Christ did.  It is about our modeling of his live and his death.

Celebrating a Cross

To many people, it might seem scandalous to celebrate a cross, as Catholics do today on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The cross appears to be a symbol of defeat: the man that many believed would be the Messiah is arrested, mocked, tortured and put to death on the cross. What is there to celebrate in that?

If the story ended with Jesus’ death on the cross, the world would be quite right to wonder at our celebration of the cross. But what begins with a death on the cross ends in Resurrection – the Resurrection of Christ, and through Him, the resurrection of all of us.

The cross reminds us that we must die to self to rise in full union with God. The cross reminds us that our physical death is only a transition from this human life to a new life; it is a sign of our everlasting life with God. And the cross also reminds us that whatever suffering we face, we do it with God and never alone.

In today’s Gospel from John, we hear the comforting, so oft-quoted words, “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.”

When we exalt the cross, we at one and the same time reverence, celebrate and marvel at incarnation, death and resurrection – Jesus’ and ours. And that is something worthy of being exalted.

What It Means To Accept Our Crosses

What does it mean to accept our crosses?

A recent issue of America Magazine has an excerpt from Jim Martin’s newest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The excerpt shares Martin’s thoughts on what Jesus means when he instructs “take up your cross.”

Martin suggests taking up our crosses is not simply recognizing that suffering is part of everyone’s life and that there are some things we cannot change, as true and important as that is. Rather, he says “Acceptance also means not passing along any bitterness that you feel about your suffering.”

Martin distinguishes between sharing our suffering with others – talking about them, crying about them, perhaps even complaining about them – and letting our suffering rule our behavior. “[I]f you are angry about your boss or school or family, you needn’t pass along that anger to others and magnify their suffering. having a lousy boss is not a reason to be mean to your family. Struggling through a rotten family situation is no excuse for being insensitive to your coworkers. Problems at school do not mean that you can be cruel to your parents. Christ did not lash out at people when he was suffering, even when he was lashed by the whip.”

Sadly, that kind of behavior is all too common and I’ve seen it in myself. You come home from a bad day at work and lash out disproportionately at a spouse or child and say, “You have to excuse me, I had a bad day at work.” I’m sure you can think of equivalent examples.

I think we all have a sense that is not a particularly admirable thing to do – that our “excuses” are not, in fact, sufficient excuses. But there is something in Martin’s tying it to Jesus’ words about taking up our cross that is helpful to me. That, I hope, will keep me mindful of the need to refrain from “passing along” my suffering to others.

We Cannot Profess Christ Without the Cross

Yesterday, Pope Francis I gave his first papal homily.

The Gospel on which he preached was the passage in Matthew when Jesus asks his disciples first, who people say he is and next, who they say he is. Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Interestingly, what the Pope focused on in his homily was not Peter’s proclamation, but the dialogue that follows (that actually was not part of yesterday’s Gospel. When Jesus tells his disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed,” Peter rebukes him, saying no such thing shall ever happen. Peter, in turn, is rebuked by Jesus, who tells his disciples that if they would follow him, they must take up his cross.

And it is that the our new pope focused on. After briefly speaking about the first two readings, he said:

We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shake-ups – there are movements that are not part of the path: there are movements that pull us back.

This Gospel continues with a special situation. The same Peter who confessed Jesus Christ, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the Cross. This has nothing to do with it.” He says, “I’ll follow you on other ways, that do not include the Cross.” When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

I think this is a message we need to hear over and over again: To be disciples, we must profess Christ. And, we cannot profess Christ without the cross.

You can read the entirety of the Pope’s homily here.

Exaltation of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Veneration of the cross dates back to the fourth century, when St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When she had the Temple of Aphrodite razed because it was said to have been built over the tomb of Jesus, workers found three crosses, one of which was believed to be the cross of Jesus. Subsequently, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site. The feast became part of the Church calendar in the 7th Century, after the Emperor Heraclius returned the Holy Cross, which had been stolen by the Persians, to Jerusalem.

The cross is an important symbol for those of us who are Christians. At one level, the cross serves as a reminder of the extent of God’s love for us, made manifest in Jesus. As we hear in today’s Gospel, in the words so familiar to us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him migth not perish but have eternal life.” It also symbolizes for us “the mind of Jesus,” who (as we hear in our first reading for today in the beautiful words of the Letter to the Philippians) “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and [humbling] himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

But our veneration of the cross is more than simply gazing on what God has done for us through Jesus. It means more than merely reciting our prayers of adoration before the cross. Truly venerating the cross means putting on the mind of Jesus. It means taking up our own crosses and living lives worthy of those who have been redeemed. It means being Christ in the world.

Kneeling in front of the cross or processing with the cross singing praise is the easy part. Living in the light of the cross is the challenge.

Viewing Everything Through the Lens of the Cross

I’m still thinking about some of the lines of a sermon I heard on Friday by my friend and colleague Reggie Whitt, a Dominican priest who says the Friday weekday masses at UST Law School. The Gospel Friday was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The five wise ones, anticipating that the bridegroom might be delayed, brought extra oil with them. The five foolish ones did not. By the time the bridegroom arrived, the lamps of the five foolish women were dying down. When they asked the wise women to borrow some of theirs, they were told there was not enough to share and so they needed to go buy their own, something that would have been impossible in the middle of the night.

I confess that I always thought the five designated as wise acted a bit selfishly, thinking they could have shared some of their oil with the others. Surely they could have spared a bit so that the five others didn’t have to go running around in the middle of the night on an errand that was doomed to failure. But that, of course, misses the point of the Gospel – that what the five foolish women of the story was lacking was not something that could be borrowed from another.

The line in the homily that brought that home to me was this: “You can’t borrow someone else’s fidelity to the Cross; and you can’t expect the world’s ways to supply it for you, if you run out.”

The parable is really, implied Reggie, about the lens through which we view the world. The power and wisdom of God at work in the Crucified Christ, he suggested, turns every other way of understanding the world upside down. And that set up the other line in the sermon that I have been sitting with. The heart of our reality as Christians, what sets the terms of our destiny, is the Crucified Christ and the Cross “is the lens through which all human experiences must be projected, and seen afresh.”

It seems to me it would make an enormous difference in our lives if we are intentional about viewing everything through the lens of the Cross. And that is a way of being, not something we can borrow.

Veneration of the Cross

Today is Good Friday, the day on which we commemorate the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As part of our Good Friday liturgy, after we listen to an account of Jesus’ passion, we venerate the cross. One by one, those attending the service come up an venerate the cross in the manner of thier choosing, some kissing it, some embracing it, some touching it with with their hands, others kneeling or prostrating before it.

We say that we venerate the “wood of the cross.” But is it not, of course, that actual cross that we kiss, or embrace or kneel before in church that is the actual object of our veneration. It is not the cross itself, but what is signfies to us as Christians. In the words of one commentator

Adoration or veneration of an image or representation of Christ’s cross does not mean that we actually adore the material image, of course, but rather what it represents. In kneeling before the crucifix and kissing it we are paying the highest honor to our Lord’s cross as the instrument of our salvation. Because the Cross is inseparable from His sacrifice, in reverencing His Cross we, in effect, adore Christ. Thus we affirm: “We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee because by Thy Holy Cross Thou has Redeemed the World.”

Thus, in this solemn ritual we perform each year, we express our adoration of Christ, whose death allows us to live. One of the things we might reflect on as we venerate the cross is the staggering reality, as expressed by my deceased friend Fr. Don Shane, that Christ didn’t just die for all of us, he died for each of us.

Take Up Your Cross

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

What it means to take up the cross is often misunderstood. We’ve all heard people respond to some physical or mental suffering by saying, “that’s my cross….that’s just the cross I have to bear.” Perhaps worse, battered women were told for years to “bear the cross” of the physical and emotional abuse of their spouses.

There is nothing Christian in being subject to spousal or child abuse. Christ’s words were never intended to invite women and children to endure abuse from their batterers. And there is nothing Christian about the various forms of physical and mental suffering that exist in the world today, whether they be caused by another person, a natural disaster or anything else.

When we pay attention to the entirety of Jesus’ message, which links denying oneself and taking up the cross, we get a more accurate understanding of what Jesus was trying to convey to his listeners. The cross of which Jesus speaks is the cost of discipleship, the difficult and sometimes painful consequences that flow from following Christ, from putting Christ first.

The cost of discipleship can sometimes be high. But at the same time that Jesus invites us to live a life of self-surrender, he promises that “whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Taking Up the Cross

Today’s and tomorrow’s Gospels confront the reality that both Christ’s mission and our own involves suffering. In today’s Gospel, Peter is quick to answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am,” with the reply, “You are the Christ.” But he follows up that answer by rebuking Jesus’ suggestion that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly…and be killed, and rise after three days.”

Jesus raises the stakes even higher in the continuation of Mark we will hear tomorrow. Not only must the Son of Man suffer, but “whoever wishes to come after [Him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow [Him].” For only those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel will save their lives.

One can only imagine the disciples’ reaction. It was one thing to follow Jesus while he went around healing and feeding people, calming the seas and preaching that the mighty would fall and the poor be lifted up. But taking up the cross and suffering must have sounded like quite another thing.

Yet, the invitation to the cross is one intended for all of us. Jesus asks us to follow His example out of love for Him, to give our whole life for God. That is not always easy and the temptations to do otherwise can be strong.

As I write this line, I look at the plaque on the wall near the door of my study that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and I pray for the grace and strength to follow His example.

The Cross

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. For an outsider looking in, it might seem strange to celebrate what appears to be a symbol of defeat – the Messiah hanging dead on a cross, mocked and jeered at.

For Christians, however, the cross is a symbol of our salvation in Christ and a symbol of life eternal. For not only does God empty himself and become human in Jesus, uniting himself with us in all things but sin, but he humbles himself even to the point of accepting death (and an ignominious one at that).

If the story ended there, the world would be quite right to wonder at our celebration of the cross. But what begins with a death on the cross ends in Resurrection – the Resurrection of Christ, and through Him, the resurrection of all of us. So the cross becomes a sign of our everlasting life with God. The Son of Man is “lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal light.”

Immediately following those words from John’s Gospel, we hear the comforting, so oft-quoted words, “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.”

When we exalt the cross, we at one and the same time reverence, celebrate and marvel at incarnation, death and resurrection. And that is something worthy of being exalted.