Homily for Sept. 14, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
I imagine that the feast that we celebrate today – the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – is hard for non-Christians to understand. It is true that in and of itself, the Cross is something terrible – the modern equivalent would be something like an electric chair; not something you celebrate. If you don’t believe that Jesus willingly died on the Cross and saved us from our sins, and then rose again, it really makes no sense to exalt the instrument of his suffering and death.
From the Christian point of view, though, it makes perfect sense. The Crucifixion was the moment when Christ showed his love to the full – “greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus Christ is glorified in the Cross because he overcame it; he turned the horror, suffering and pain of his slow death on the Cross, into the greatest possible act of love. The Cross was not the shameful and sad ending of a life defeated and cut short unexpectedly in its prime. It was planned by God as part the redemption of humanity, and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, as in the first reading today. It was the occasion for Christ to rise from the dead in triumph, and the beginning of new life for all who believe in Him. Jesus suffered it willingly and “because of this, God greatly exalted him”.
This is why when Christ is portrayed in the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, the Cross is present as well. It is a token and symbol of the greatness of His love. Similarly, the martyrs are shown with their own instruments of suffering by which they gave witness to their love for God and their fidelity to their faith. St Lawrence is shown with the grill on which they roasted him, St Andrew is often shown with his own X-shaped cross, St Bartholomew (who was flayed alive) is shown carrying his skin, and so forth.
Each one of us has our own cross. We all face difficult situations or internal struggles against sin that make us suffer and make it difficult for us to keep our fidelity to God and our faith and trust in Him. We often beg God to free us from them. And yet if we face these difficulties in prayer and remain faithful despite our suffering, they become opportunities to love and to participate in the work of redemption. Those very situations will be a cause of joy and glory for us when we get to heaven.
Maybe it would do us good to picture ourselves in the painting of the Last Judgment, and try to imagine what our own instruments of bloodless “martyrdom” would look like. Some parents would be depicted carrying a photo of one of their children who went astray and for whom they prayed and sacrificed. A husband or wife could be shown with their spouse whom they had to nurse through years of illness or dementia. Some of the images might seem silly or incongruous – someone struggling with alcoholism might be carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels; a man who is strongly tempted by internet pornography, shown with a laptop – but this kind of imagery can help us to see our daily crosses – and those of our family, friends and neighbors – in a new light. Jesus’ suffering on the Cross was necessary for our redemption, and because He remained faithful, His Cross is now His glory. If we keep up our fight to be faithful – and don’t hesitate to start over when we fail – we too will share in that glory, and what is now our burden and our shame will become a trophy of victory.