Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross at Mississippi Abbey
The cross is seen by many today as threatening and offensive. The threat is this: It is a symbol of self-denying love.
Self-denying love is at the heart of every Christian vocation. It is implicit in our baptismal call to follow Christ and imitate His way of going to the Father. Self-denying love is at the heart of the monastic and marital vocations. In our first reading today, St. Paul calls it kenosis; self-emptying. It is the necessary condition for following Christ in a radical way. Paul wrote: “Although He was in the form of God…He did not deem equality with God…but emptied Himself…” Paul’s teaching on kenosis applies to us this way:
“Although we possess a certain status such as autonomous person, we…
…did not exploit that status for our own, selfish advantage…
But, decided to act in self-giving.”
It is the necessary condition because humility and self-emptying are the highest manifestations of God’s love for us. Total self-giving is what the three persons of the Trinity do. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are called to do the same. The insistent nature of that call, tugging at our hearts, is what brings people to their vocation. We long to love wholeheartedly. “Wholeheartedly” means we make and stand by a decision that will guide us for the rest of our lives.
Since the 12th century, the monastic model for this self-emptying, wholehearted love has been the marital relationship. St. Bernard and others saw it as an analogy for Christ’s love for the Church and of the monk and nuns love for God. Both the marital and the monastic urge to self-emptying begin with a sense of lack.
Humility and kenosis enable us to express love because it puts to good use our inherent sense that, of ourselves, we are not so much. We feel the need to affiliate with something greater. That’s not low self-esteem; that’s the truth. Humility is living in the truth and kenosis is getting rid of what is not the truth; it is an unburdening of ourselves. It is “growth by subtraction.”
St. Bernard tells us that the thing in us that Christ came to save is our freedom to consent to the demands of love. He adds: “It is because there can be no conjugal union without love, that conjugal union became a metaphor for love of God.” In other words, it is the consent given on the wedding night that consummates the life-long consent to self-donation. One consents to pursue the good of the other with faith that one’s own good will thereby be assured. And it is the consent given at profession that consummates the nun’s life-long consent to self-sacrifice. It is given in that same spirit of faith. Only love can motivate and sustain that consent. Anything less than wholehearted consent invalidates both acts.
Receptivity of the gifts of God, of His will for us, is what kenosis enables. What God, our spouse, and our monastic sisters want to give us cannot be completed without our consenting to receive it. And to receive it we must be empty. We must know our lack.
Both vocations call us to give. We are called to self-sacrifice, to self-donation. “To sacrifice oneself is to choose a future that is not one’s own.” It is giving ones most valuable possible gift to a valued other.
To this end we take vows to override our selfishness and weakness. The vows will be more important than passing feelings or events. This is how we participate in the kenosis, the self-emptying that we remember today. This is given to us because it is where we find our true self-fulfillment, our true happiness.
So, what does the cross triumph over? It triumphs over self-love. What about the cross threatens people? It is a symbol of self-denying love; it is acknowledgement of something greater than self. Gaudium et Spes nullifies this threat with a promise: “It is only in the sincere gift of self that a person finds self.” The cross teaches us something that the secular worldview cannot understand. It teaches us that “she is not a fool who gives up what she cannot keep, for the sake of what she can never lose.”