Sunday, September 14, 2008

Exaltation of the Cross

We praise you Oh Christ and we adore you. Because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.

More than 30 years ago, when I was in college the first time, one of the others students residing in the same dormitory as I saw a crucifix in my room or the room of another Catholic student. The non-Catholic scoffed at it and remarked that his Jesus was no longer on the Cross. I did not argue with him because he was a person whose mind was generally closed. But I remember thinking two things. First that I knew Jesus was not on the cross any more- it was just an image to remind me of the cost of our salvation and the love of God. Secondly, I thought of the scripture passage where Saint Paul said we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24).

It is difficult for us in this time and place to understand the horror of crucifixion. The images we see are generally much milder than the actual facts. Not only is crucifixion extremely painful, but it was a form of death meant to bring shame upon one who suffered it. In the Jewish law it said cursed be the one hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23) which they interpreted to mean that being hung up to die or being left hanging from a tree after death was religiously unclean. In the law it indicates that to hang someone on a tree, or to leave him there would defile the land and make acceptable sacrifice to God impossible.

The Romans practiced crucifixion of slaves, rebels and pirates, and others whom they judged to be trying to destroy the political stability. Yet they recognized how violent crucifixion was and made it illegal to crucify a Roman citizen. (Note that Saint Paul was executed by the sword- he was a Roman citizen and had rights). The ancient views of the Cross before Christ was unanimous- avoid the Cross at all costs.

Yet as Catholic Christians, we do not avoid the Cross. We glory in it. Saint Paul even says that he wants to boast in the cross (see Galatians 6:14). We decorate our homes and churches with the cross. We wear the cross as jewelry and carry them in our pockets (such as in the Rosary). We begin and end every prayer making the sign of the Cross. No blessing is complete without the Cross being invoked.

We do not glory in the Cross because we want Jesus to be suffering. Nor are we some kind of sadists who take pleasure in the pain of others. Rather, we acknowledge the Cross as the instrument of our salvation. Without the Cross, we would still be subject to death and would have no hope for eternal life.

We venerate the Cross by itself, yet the Cross is meaningless without Christ. If Jesus had not been crucified, then the Cross would be no more glorious than a hangman’s rope. Who would decorate their home with a noose or a miniature version of an electric chair? But because of Jesus Christ, this terrible instrument of death has become the instrument of our salvation. The first antiphon from the Office of Readings for Sunday week I of the Liturgy of the hours states: See how the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life.

The cross is a reminder that the things that often seem to be the worst, can be transformed by the love of God. When the people Israel were in the desert and complained against God that the Manna was disgusting food, their sin resulted in their being bitten by snakes (see Numbers 21:4b-9). When they repented, the Lord God instructed them to look upon a bronze serpent mounted on a pole and they would be healed. Not because a bronze serpent held medicinal properties, but because by placing their trust in God, they would be healed from their guilt.

Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, death and suffering entered the world. And throughout history people have suffered greatly. Even today, when one of our loved ones gets sick with cancer or suffers in some other terrible manner, or even if they have died, we can sometimes wonder what we did that led God to permit these things to happen to us or to the ones whom we love.

Yet in the glory of the Cross, we can see how Jesus, Saint Paul says, although He was in the form of God ...emptied Himself (see Phillipians 2:6-8) to die obediently on the Cross. As a result, Jesus triumphed gloriously. There is no suffering that Our Lord is unfamiliar with, and there is no sorrow that He cannot overcome with His merciful love.

In the Korean War, there was a Army Chaplain- Father Emil Kapaun. He was captured by the communists along with other soldiers. In the prison camp, he led all of them to trust and hope in God. His army helmet had a cross on it. And seeing Father wear that Cross made his captors very angry. And Father’s helmet was put in the trashpile. But all the soldiers, whether they were Catholic or not, or even Christian or not, were soon visiting the trashpile to meditate in front of that cross. After awhile, Father Kapaun was taken away and died shortly thereafter. The Communists feared his leadership and holiness. But after his death, the men remaining stuck together. One of them, who was Jewish, even carved a crucifix out of wood in memory of the slain priest. The men were reported to say that the love of God reflected in the face of Fr Kapaun. No matter what happened to him, Fr Emil always exuded love.

Saint Paul said that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). The message of the Cross is that of today’s Gospel passage- that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). God did not do this because we were wonderful and deserving of His love, because we are sinners. God loves us because that is what He does. And no matter where we are, or how low we have fallen, the glorious cross reminds us to trust in the Lord, for He has conquered all things.

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