For the subject of my homily this morning I would like to look back a few days to a feast that we celebrated last Wednesday, the feast of the exaltation of the holy cross. Like most of the important feast days of the church, the feast of the exaltation of the holy cross is not something that we limit to one day of the year only. We celebrate it specifically on one day to give it proper emphasis for our understanding on an every day basis. So, in some way or another, we celebrate the exaltation of the holy cross every day. (All of this, by the way, just to justify my using it as a topic for today.)
We are very much used to the cross as a symbol, even though that symbolism may have certain variations in different traditions. For the orthodox and the Catholic traditions, the cross usually has an image of the crucified body of Christ on it. This is to emphasize the love of God which was so great that he gave his life for us. The Protestant tradition just has the cross itself without the body. This is to emphasize the love of God which conquered the death of the cross and manifested itself in the resurrection. Both traditions are meaningful and quite acceptable.
There is a third use of the symbolism of the cross that is highly suspect and most probably superstitious. This is the cross that we see hanging from the necks of sometimes questionable personalities in the entertainment world and even in the criminal world. One extreme for this is the apparent custom of the Russian mafia to tattoo elaborate representations of the cross on the back of hardened criminals, almost as a badge of honor.
The purpose and the symbolism of the cross during Jesus’s life was as a threat and an instrument of torture and death. It was deliberately chosen by the Roman government to prolong the death agony of hardened criminals and traitors. So severe a penalty was it considered that no Roman citizen could be put to death on the cross. However, by his dying on the cross Jesus forever changed its meaning. He was even to make this extraordinary statement, “if you wish to become my disciples, you must take up your cross daily and follow me.”
On the face of it, this sounds like an invitation to suffering and death. Frequently in the tradition of Christian preaching we are taught precisely that. We must expect, receive, and accept suffering and death if we are to be true Christians. No doubt there is some truth in that but if we stop there, I think we lose the real meaning of the cross.
According to Jesus, taking up the cross is something we must do on a daily basis. Also according to Jesus the cross does represent suffering and death: not the precise kind of suffering and death that Jesus experienced but a personal suffering and death that is intimately involved with the circumstances of our own lives and on an everyday basis. The cross for us is not literal wooden cross beams but is to be found in all of the difficulties, trials, sufferings, failures and miseries which are inevitably a part of our lives. But it must not stop there. Jesus did not come among us just to die on a cross no matter how significant a love that must entail. Jesus did come among us to rise from the dead, to walk in newness of life, to become once again the cosmic Christ, the wisdom of the father through whom everything was made and who, as St. Bonaventure puts it, glitters at the heart of every created thing. So we can see that crosses are never an end in themselves but only a means to something beyond them, something new and wonderful and life-giving and holy.
It is only in the true meaning of the cross that we are to understand why bad things happen to good people. The cross is not an end in itself but a springboard, a challenge, a promise of something great and wonderful. Crosses are not stumbling stones but rather building blocks. The myriad daily sufferings of our lives; economic and financial disasters, career failures, financial struggles, accidents, illnesses, advancing old age, the suffering of loved ones especially children, the death of spouses ,of parents, all of these crosses are entrances, each in their own way into the victory that Christ has won for us. From a natural point of view we see our crosses as failures. But even here,our faith tells us that failure is the seed of growth and success. Albert Einstein has said that failure is success in progress. This is why we celebrate the exultation of the holy cross. This is why we take up our crosses daily to follow Christ.