by Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J. Rome
Numbers 21, 4-9, Phil 2, 2-11, John 3, 13-17
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrated on the 14th of September. On this day we honour the Holy Cross on which Christ died out of love for us and by his death on the cross he brought Salvation to the world. The Cross of Christ is the instrument of love through which God saved us. The public veneration of the Cross of Christ originated in the fourth century, beginning with the miraculous discovery of the cross on September 14, 326, by Saint Helen, mother of Constantine, while she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the same day the two churches built at the site of Calvary by Constantine were dedicated. In the Western Church, the feast came into prominence in the seventh century, after Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople recaptured the cross of Christ from the Persians and returned it to Jerusalem. The Cross because of what it represents is the most potent and universal symbol of the Christian faith. We revere the instrument by which Jesus Christ, Our Lord, saved us. Once understood as an object of scorn and shame, now the cross has become for us the sign of glory.
Paul is talking about in the beautiful hymn he quotes in his letter to the Philippians which is our Second Reading for today. The state of Jesus was divine. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” Yet Jesus “did not cling to his equality with God”. He did not insist on his status. Instead, “he emptied himself” and took on the condition of a slave. God’s Son became like a slave, the lowest person in society of those times, a person who could be bought and sold in a public market and this slave had no rights or status. But there was more to come. Sharing our human nature, like us in everything but sin, he went to an even lower level, “accepting death” and not any death, but death on a cross, though totally innocent, dying as a convicted criminal. He gave up everything, life and good name and all human dignity. And all to show us how much God loves us, how much he himself loves us. No wonder that believers in other religions find it either totally incomprehensible or outrageously shocking and blasphemous that God should go through such an experience. Our faith, says St Paul, is offensive to the Jews [and, incidentally, also to Muslims] and nonsense to the Gentiles.
In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks to us about his elevation on the Cross of Calvary, first directs our thoughts to Heaven: he associates his elevation on the Cross with his elevation into Heaven. At the same time Jesus’ ‘lifting up’ finds reminiscence in an experience of the Israelites during their 40 years’ wandering in the desert. People in the desert grumbled against God and their ungratefulness brought on God’s displeasure. They found themselves being attacked by a plague of poisonous snakes. After several people had died, they came to Moses begging forgiveness and asking him to save them from further death. Moses knew that God was a forgiving God and he pleads for his people. Moses was told by God to make a bronze serpent and set it up on a standard. If anyone was bitten, they just had to look at the bronze serpent and live. Jesus, too, though in a very different way was also ‘lifted up’ on the cross to save us. However, to be lifted up has two meanings. There is first his lifting up on the cross. The cross is at the very center of our Christian faith. It is something which non-Christians often find difficult to understand. Superficially, it points to the utter failure of Jesus’ mission. Crucifixion was one of the most barbaric and painful forms of execution. It was also one of the most shameful types of punishment. The convicted person hung stark naked in a public place, the object of all kinds of abuse and mockery. It was the ultimate stripping of all decency and human dignity. The same Cross manifests to all men God’s love for the world, for this world that God calls to serve him and to praise him. Hence John tells us: ” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Adoration of the Cross is the adoration of Jesus Christ, the God Man, who suffered and died on this Roman instrument of torture to save us from sin and death. The cross represents the One Sacrifice by which Jesus, obedient even unto death, accomplished our salvation. The cross is a symbolic summary of the Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. This Cross today is the best-known religious symbol of Christianity. It reminds Christians of God’s act of love in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary, where he gave his life for us, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” The cross also reminds Christians of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, since it is through His death and resurrection; Jesus conquered death and gave us new life. The cross symbolizes the sacrifice of Christ through which he saved or humanity and today it is presented as an instrument of Christ’s triumph. Our faith tells us that the Cross is an instrument of our God’s saving Love”.
According to the Tradition the Holy Cross was found by St. Helena about 180 years after it had been buried by the heathens. For out of an aversion to Christianity, they had done all in their power to conceal the place where it lay, and where Jesus was buried. They had therefore heaped upon his sepulcher a great quantity of stones and rubbish, besides building a temple to Venus; that those who came thither to adore him might seem to pay their worship to a marble idol. They had, moreover, erected a statue to Jupiter in the place where Jesus rose from the dead. St Helena, Constantine’s mother, being inspired with a great desire to find the identical cross on which Christ had suffered and died, came to Jerusalem, and ordered the profane building to be pulled down, the statues to be broken in pieces, and the rubbish to be removed; and upon digging to a great depth, they discovered the holy sepulcher, and near it three crosses; also the nails which had pierced our Saviour’s body, and the title which had been affixed to his cross.
A miracle helped to identify the real cross when a sick person was healed by its touch. St. Helena, full of joy for having found the treasure which she had so earnestly sought, and so highly esteemed, built a church on the spot, and placed the cross there with great veneration. She afterward carried part of it to Emperor Constantine, who was then at Constantinople, who received it with great veneration. Another part of the Cross she sent, or rather carried to Rome to be placed in the church which she built there, under the name of The Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where it remains to this day. The title was sent by St. Helena to the same church in Rome, and deposited on the top of an arch, where it was found in a case of lead in 1492. The main part of the Cross St. Helena enclosed in a silver shrine, and committed to the care of St. Macarius was kept with singular respect in the magnificent church which she built at Jerusalem called the Basilica of the Holy Cross. It was also called the Church of the Sepulcher or of the Resurrection, because of its proximity to the sepulcher where Jesus was buried.
The Christian cross is the best-known religious symbol of Christianity. Two thousand years ago there was a man who said that he “gloried” in the cross of Christ. He was one who turned the world upside down by the doctrines he preached. He was one who did more to establish Christianity than any man that ever lived. Yet he tells the Galatians community: God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” The cross in the Bible the instrument to which Jesus was nailed is what St. Paul had in his mind’s eye when he told the Philippians that Christ “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. This is not the cross in which St. Paul gloried. His cross was identified with Jesus himself, the one who suffered died and rose. The cross also means the afflictions, trials and persecutions which believers in Christ have to go through if they follow Christ faithfully, for the sake of their religion. This is the sense in which our Lord uses the word, when He says, “He who does not take up his cross, and follow after me daily, is not worthy of Me.” The cross of Christ is also the sign of forgiveness, and Jesus did this by His suffering on the cross. Paul in his writings did not think of what he had done and how much he suffered. He did not meditate on his own goodness, and his own righteousness. This is the subject he loved to preach about. He tells the Galatians, “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me”. The secret was Jesus crucified and he was Paul’s food and drink and at same time Peace and consolation of his soul.
The cross is today the universal image of Christian belief. Countless generations of artists have turned it into a thing of beauty to be carried in procession or worn as jewelry. To the eyes of the first Christians, it had no beauty. It stood outside too many city walls, decorated only with decaying corpses, as a threat to anyone who defied Rome’s authority—including the heretic sect which refused sacrifice to Roman gods. Although believers spoke of the cross as the instrument of salvation, it seldom appeared in Christian art unless disguised as an anchor or the Chi-Rho until after Constantine’s edict of toleration. Placing a crucifix in churches and homes, in classrooms of Catholic schools and in other Catholic institutions, or wearing this image on our persons, is a constant reminder and witness of Christ’s ultimate triumph, His victory over sin and death through His suffering and dying on the Cross.
Pope Benedict XVI in his homily on the Holy Cross at the Shrine of Lourdes said: “What a great thing it is to possess the Cross.” Then quoting St Andrew of Crete, the Pope said that he who possesses it possesses a treasure. On this day when the Church’s liturgy celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Gospel reminds us of the meaning of this great mystery: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that men might be saved. The Son of God became vulnerable, assuming the condition of a slave, obedient even to death, death on a cross. By his Cross we are saved. The instrument of torture which, on Good Friday, manifested God’s judgment on the world has become a source of life, pardon, mercy, a sign of reconciliation and peace. By raising our eyes towards the Crucified one, we adore him who came to take upon himself the sin of the world and to give us eternal life. And the Church invites us proudly to lift up this glorious Cross so that the world can see the full extent of the love of the Crucified one for all. She invites us to give thanks to God because from a tree which brought death, life has burst out anew. On this wood Jesus reveals to us his sovereign majesty now exalted in glory. In our midst is he who loved us even to giving his life for us, he who invites every human being to draw near to him with trust.
In his homily at Cyprus in the month of June, 2010, the Pontiff said that the Focus of the celebration is the Cross of Christ, which is an instrument of torture, a sign of suffering, defeat and failure. In this instrument we adore and praise our Lord Jesus Christ, because by his Holy Cross he has redeemed the world. This Cross also represents the definitive triumph of God’s love over all the evil in the world. Speaking of the Glory of the Cross, Pope Benedict said that the wood of the Cross became the vehicle for our redemption, just as the tree from which it was fashioned had occasioned the fall of our first parents. The Cross, then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears. This Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, nor a badge of membership of a group, or an imposition of a creed or a philosophy by force. It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the victory of non-violence over oppression, and it speaks of God raising up the lowly, empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. Speaking of the Power of the Cross the Pontiff said that a world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would have the final word. While no earthly power can save us from the consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed the reality of sin and death into its opposite, namely a cause of our Glory.
Today the sign of the cross has become a universal Christian symbol. When people sneeze and cross themselves or athletes make a sign of the cross before or during play, we recognize them immediately as Christians. Ornamental crosses are fashionable today in the form of necklaces, broaches, earrings, and the like. A crucifix identifies a church as a Christian church. Likewise, crucifixes in the homes, the school and the classroom are a constant witness and reminder of our faith in Christ who died on the cross to set us free. These are all useful and important ways of proclaiming and lifting high the cross of Christ. The cross is not just a piece of wood. It is a symbolic summary of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ by which we have been redeemed. It is a symbol of our faith in the crucified and risen one, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that the cross should be a constant feature in the daily lives of his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”. There is a story told that soon after she took over the house beside a Hindu temple in Calcutta where she cared for the destitute and dying, some people complained, accusing her of proselytism. They wanted her evicted and appealed to the police. When a senior police inspector went to the house to see the situation he was both overwhelmed and appalled. The Officer was overwhelmed by the loving care that was being given to the most wretched of people and appalled by the terrible stench of disease and death. He went back to the critics and said he would evict Mother Teresa if they would be willing to take over the work. No more criticisms were heard. They were not prepared to empty themselves as she was.
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