Exaltation of the Cross
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.