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There are any number of things that distinguish Catholic Christians from other Christians. Some are profound doctrinal truths and others are more in the area of custom and practice. One of these is the way our Catholic tradition makes use of the universal Christian symbol of the cross. For all Christians, the cross is a reminder of Jesus and the salvation He won for us, on a cross, nearly 2000 years ago. However there are a couple of uses of the cross that have become visual distinctions of Catholic Christians.
Today’s celebration of the exaltation of the cross provides an excellent opportunity to review the meaning and use of the symbol, as well as renewing our own use of the sign. The sign of the cross traced over our upper bodies while invoking the Holy Trinity has very ancient Christian roots. Since the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century the extensive use of the symbol is found primarily in the Catholic and orthodox Churches. Its use, especially as we begin prayer as we did at the beginning of Mass, is a reminder of the central event of our Faith, the death of Jesus on the cross, and the fact that our redemption is accomplished by the God who is Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit. We should be careful and deliberate in our use of this sign always a statement of our most fundamental beliefs.
The cross with the image of Christ crucified on it likewise has a long history in our Christian tradition. Its use developed within the early developments of Christian art and iconography. Increasingly it was found in Churches especially in association with the altar upon which the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is made present. The use of the cross with the image of Christ crucified was eliminated by most protestant groups that separated from Rome in the sixteenth century. In Catholic Churches the placement of the cross with the image of Christ crucified, near the altar, is required for Mass. Consequently many Catholic churches have a large crucifix, such as our own, in the sanctuary, mounted on the wall or suspended from the ceiling. The placement of crucifixes in Catholic homes is likewise commended to serve as a daily reminder of who we are as people grateful for our redemption, seeking to follow Jesus Christ more resolutely.
In today’s Gospel Jesus announced His coming death by comparing the eventual lifting up of the Son of Man, Jesus, the Messiah with the incident described in our first reading. In the case of the incident during the exodus journey in the desert some 1200 years before Jesus, the people had been bitten by serpents as punishment for their rebellion against God. But they could then look upon the bronze serpent, a representation of the punishment, and be healed by God. In this there is some direction of how we should make us of the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, lifted up, upon the cross today.
While our crucifixes are relatively antiseptic, they do remind us that Jesus suffered a horrible and painful death. Unlike the ancient Israelites we are not experiencing the physical pain of punishment for sin when we look upon the cross. We are looking upon the image of one who accepted crucifixion which could substitute for the punishment deserving of our sinful rebellion against God in ways big or small. So the image of Christ crucified is always a reminder of the reality of sin. But it is also a reminder of the healing redemption from sin won by Jesus and affirmed by His resurrection. And it is not simply about past sin and forgiveness, it is about our continued vulnerability to sin and continuous flow of mercy and grace that still pours forth from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since we don’t necessarily feel the pain of our rebellion, we must look upon the cross with faith: faith that we are sinners needing forgiveness and faith that Jesus offers healing and forgiveness and is constantly trying to help us do better.
If our consciences are right, we can always look upon the cross and call to mind our need for mercy and grace. We might see in the image of the suffering of Jesus our failure to pray daily, we might see our unexcused absence from Sunday Mass, we might see a cross word uttered to our spouse in a moment of frustration or impatience. Little children we may see a hurtful word or action toward a friend or classmate during this past week. Young people we may see the times they acted surly to loving parents because, well, they just didn’t want them to be as directive as they were. They may see the occasion when they gave into a wrong action just to be more accepted by peers. As adults, we may see when we lingered too long in gossipy conversation or we misused the extraordinary tools of internet and social media. There is a lot to see when we look upon the image of Christ crucified.
But we should also see the exaltation, the exaltation of resurrection and new life the power to be more patient, more gentle, more courageous, more devout, more faithful, more chaste.
And here, of all places, where we gather to witness the making present of that very sacrificial event depicted on the cross, we should be stirred all the more to celebrate with a sense of awe and gratitude and confidence that we will be touched with the healing effects of the sacrifice once again in a new and powerful way. That is, if we do look upon the image of Jesus exalted on the Cross with faith, humility, honesty and trust.
There is a saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Growing up a bit shy I did not like squeaking too much, at least away from home and family. However, I got brave in seeking a summer job year and squeaked. The end result was a very good job. And I have certainly learned that as a pastor I have to squeak a bit now and then to encourage people to respond in one matter or another.
This weekend’s Gospel presents an example of a woman who squeaked and persisted and thus got what she asked for. It is important that we understand a little bit about this woman. She was a non-Jew who lived in the area to which Jesus would often step away for relief and refuge from hostility. Whatever she heard about Jesus was enough to give her the faith in Him that caused her to persistently ask Jesus for a healing for her daughter. She called upon Him using a term, Son of David, Lord. This suggested she believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. While not Jewish herself, whatever she knew and experienced of Jesus led her to recognize the validity of the Jewish religious viewpoint. Jesus’ first response noted His primary attention to His fellow Jews, and then in a parable style that comes across as a bit harsh, he said the food of the children (the particular people of God which was the Jewish people)was not to be given to dogs (other people). This only accentuated the faith and persistence of the Canaanite woman. Then, experiencing some unique personal encounter with Jesus she, as it were, entered into and continued His parable by noting that even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the Master’s table. Indeed she received a most significant scrap from the master, the healing of her daughter.
This incident is recorded in the Gospel to show Jesus’ clear intention that His mission was for all people. Even while the Gospels record His predominate interaction with the historic chosen people, the Gospels record a number of examples of the “greater faith” expressed by others, like the woman in today’s Gospel.
The first reading from Isaiah, hundreds of years before Jesus reminds us that universality of God’s embrace of all people predated the coming of Jesus into the world. The Lord, through the prophet, noted that foreigners could be joined to the Lord, and that the Lord’s house of prayer was to be a house of prayer for all people. But it would not be until Jesus established His Church that this would be aggressively fulfilled.
Coincidentally, our second reading from St. Paul fits in perfectly as he noted his special mission among the gentiles, those who were not part of the first ring of God’s people.
This weekend the Church reminds us that God is still calling all people to gather in prayer in His house. It is the house which is the Body of Christ, the Church. It is the house in which we have gathered to pray today. Each of us is reminded today that we have a mission to help all those who are not gathered here or in any one of the other countless segments of the Lord’s house of prayer to respond to God’s call. We call this evangelization. It is the mission of sharing with others the good news. It is the good news that God, in Jesus Christ, came among us to save us from our sins so that we could enjoy union with God on earth and for all eternity in heaven. We are not only God’s creatures, made in His image, we can be His children. Through the merits of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can enjoy a share in God’s own life, a spark of the divine. It is a life of personal union with God that provides joy and peace, even among the many challenges that nibble away at our happiness right and left. This is the life which we noted in the opening prayer of the Mass “surpasses all our human desires.”
In recent years the Popes have spoken of a new evangelization. It is essentially the old, the original evangelization revitalized to meet the needs of our current age. The new evangelization does note that many of those to be evangelized are not unaware of Christianity. They are surrounded by Christians. Many of them come from Christian backgrounds, or once identified themselves as Christians or Catholics as well. I am reading Scott Hahn’s Evangelizing Catholics, and in it he goes to scripture and the early Church to summarize the evangelization fundamentals. First it is good news that is essentially relationship with a person, Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Secondly it calls for learning about Jesus, about how He wants to relate to us, how He wants us to live and what will make us truly happy. That is what we call catechesis. Finally, evangelization includes sacramental encounter with Jesus. It is sacramental encounter that begins with baptism, is sealed in confirmation and renewed and enriched over and over again in Holy Communion here in every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in this little segment of the Lord’s House of Prayer.
The RCIA is the current tool the Church uses to move people along the process of being evangelized. Patrick Middleton is gearing up for another year, and is looking for the new candidates that you will be encouraging to take this first step. You will also note in the bulletin that Patrick and John Schroeter have put together a little presentation event for those who might be curious about the Catholic Faith. It is scheduled for what might be the more comfortable neutral territory of the public library. Hopefully some here today know someone perhaps not ready for the RCIA, but for whom such a presentation might have some interest. Don’t forget to pray for this event, since they have me front and center answering some questions.
One thing I have learned in my years as a priest, and perhaps even more so in recent years, is that the Holy Spirit is actively moving people to seek Jesus Christ in His Catholic Church. Like the woman in the Gospel they come squeaking to us. But the Holy Spirit wants us working on this as well. Our starting point is the Gospel message that God is calling all to His house. And the Church, especially our recent Popes, remind us that we must be helping with this call. The curious out there, in our families, in our work places, at the sport’s field, in our neighborhoods need to see something about us that associates us with Jesus and His Church. Then the simple questions will come up and the opportunity for evangelization falls right into our lap. But we do have to be ready.
To be an evangelist one must first be a true and intentional disciple, one who says, in one way or another, every day: Jesus I want to follow you. We as sometimes, or maybe often, struggling disciples must then do some self-evangelization: growing closer to the person of Jesus in prayer, study and sacrament.