What do you see when you see the Cross? (Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross)

This last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. We have been preaching about turning points and with this Feast we celebrate one of the biggest turning points in human history.

The Exaltation of the Cross is one of the oldest feasts in the Roman Calendar. The origin of the feast is the discovery by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, of the True Cross in 320 AD. Upon the discovery, Constantine erected two churches, one in the Holy Sepulcher and one in Calvary, on September 13 and 14, 335. As you may know, Constantine is the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

The origin of the feast, given our modern historical sensitivities, may make this feast a difficult one for us. The way I take it is that it is always good to reflect and celebrate the Cross. The way I propose we reflect about the Cross is to ask ourselves what do we see when we see the Cross?

Perhaps we take the answer for granted. But the Cross is a sign, and any sign (with, hopefully, the exception of traffic signs) is open to interpretation.  To make the point that not everyone sees the same thing when we see a cross, I have a story to tell: three years ago, my three sisters came to visit me in Virginia where I lived while studying Canon Law at Catholic University. The beautiful parish where I lived, Good Shepherd, had a large Cross outside. One of my sisters came with her son, who was then three. He saw the Cross and asked: “Where is the ambulance?” I did turn to my sister and I told her, “You do realize that his uncle is a priest, right?” This story made the congregation smile yesterday, but I believe it makes the point: not everybody has been raised with the same religious sensitivities, not everybody sees in the Cross what we think everybody sees.

We could continue wondering: What did the feudal Pope and bishops of the Middle Ages see in the Cross, when they organized the Crusades, under the same Cross we exalt today? Or how many of us have taken the Cross for granted, as it is such an ingrained part of our culture, but do not think much about its meaning?

I certainly cannot tell you what you should see in the Cross, but I can tell you what I see. This weekend I chose to reflect about two of the things I see when I look at the Cross:

The first thing I see is redemptive suffering. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, goes to the Cross so that his suffering will save. By going to the Cross, willingly but still loving life and loving his disciples, Jesus protects them and saves them. It is the kind of suffering that here, in this blog, we called the suffering of discipleship.

The second thing I see is that Jesus is still hanging on the Cross, so the Cross is not just a sign of a historical event. I look at the Cross and I see that the obsessions and fears, the ideologies and the thirst for power that brought Jesus to the Cross are still present in the world today. I am called to help to bring Jesus down from this Cross on which he still hangs today—in the form of children, and so many men and women who suffer the same evil forces today.

This Feast begs the question: What do you see when you see the Cross?

Good Friday Pic

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Suffering of Discipleship

The homily last week started by explaining that it was very difficult to preach because the story, known as Peter’s Confession, was incomplete. It is on this 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time that we get the rest of it. The same Jesus who told the same Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” now tells him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” How do we explain the contrast?

I believe Peter, who speaks on behalf of the whole group of disciples, has no problem in recognizing that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. This is the “confession of faith” we heard last week. But the gospel this week has Jesus “beginning to show” to his disciples that he will be rejected and that he will suffer to the point of death. That part Peter simply can’t accept. The disciples want a powerful Messiah, a political leader who will bring about the liberation of the people of Israel, by any means necessary. They want to hear power, but what Jesus tells them is about suffering.

What kind of suffering? When I read this gospel I often think of a very strong woman I met at a previous parish. She was in charge of several ministries, very mindful about helping the poor. She told me once that she had a very painful arthritis, but that she had decided not to take the medicine the doctor had prescribed for the pain, so she could then offer her suffering to the Lord.

I wondered what image of God she had, that made her think that God would enjoy her pain—a pain that she could easily alleviate—as an offering. This is certainly not the God I believe in. This is not the suffering Jesus is speaking about today. Rather, Jesus is speaking about the suffering of discipleship.

Jesus speaks about the suffering we experience when we love someone, and that love makes us suffer for that person. Loving someone makes us vulnerable, makes us suffer. The kind of suffering most parents experience about their children, for instance (I know my mother still suffers for me, even to this day, when I am 42!) Only that the call to discipleship goes beyond our immediate family members for whom we naturally care.

Jesus speaks about the suffering and the rejection we experience when we serve others, when our own needs become secondary to the needs of others—regardless of who they are. This is why just after speaking about his upcoming suffering, Jesus speaks about discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The first step to live a life of discipleship is to take up our crosses, which means to assume everything that keeps us from living lives of service to others and move on. It means to leave behind obsessions, dysfunctionalities, self-centeredness… Understanding that our vocation is really discipleship, and to move from the concern about self to the concern about others is a step that not many take.  But if we did, it would really be a turning point.

Forgiveness is one way to die to self – to take up the cross and move from concern about self to concern about others – which is what next Sunday’s gospel is about.