Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross
Scripture Readings: Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17
We commemorate the finding of the Cross of Christ in Jerusalem by Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, in the 4th century. It is from this discovery that Christians began to venerate the Cross, especially in the Good Friday Liturgy, beginning in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the world and continuing still today.
As our Gospel makes clear the Cross is inseparable from God’s desire to save the world. As Jesus himself says, the Son “had” to be lifted up for God’s saving plan to be accomplished. This “had” is a cipher for a divine calculus that we will never be able to figure out through human logic. Only something like Paul’s experience, “he loved me and gave himself for me,” will bring us to understand the divine necessity of the Cross. The Cross, and the Son who was sent, and the saving love of God, are all one, and so Jesus saying, “Not my will but yours be done,” was Jesus embracing the Cross before ever Pilate’s soldiers brought him to it.
Our first reading by contrast talks about no divine plan. There, the Cross, death on a Cross, is purely the personal vocation of Jesus Christ: his sheer humility as the way of his being the place where God is to be glorified. For Paul, the Cross is the pattern of the Christian’s vocation, too: have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus. For us, for Christians, death on the Cross takes the form of something like Saint Thérèse’s “little way”: in Paul’s words, the Cross is “do everything without grumbling and complaining.”
It is noteworthy that the word Cross does not appear in the Rule of Saint Benedict. But the meaning of the Cross does from beginning to end. Instead of a Cross, Benedict uses the image of the ladder; and like the Cross, the ladder of humility is an instrument of exaltation through humility, ascent through descent, the drama of kenosis. As Benedict says, the Cross of the ladder is our life in this world; as Saint Ælred says simply, our profession as monks is the Cross.
Today Pope Francis offered Mass for the repose of the soul of Fr. Jacques Hamel. In his homily Pope Francis said, “Jesus Christ is the first Martyr, the first to give his life for us. From this mystery of Christ proceeds the whole story of Christian martyrdom up to our own day.” The Pope said that Fr Jacques was a martyr; but he had also said that his death was an act of absurd violence. Whether it be the early martyrs in the circuses of Rome or Maximilian Kolbe in a starvation bunker or parents and children coming out of a village church in Syria or Nigeria, martyrdom, like the Cross itself, almost always looks absurd and useless. But the Triumph of the Cross is the triumph of love that overcomes the world, the goodness that overcomes evil; it is the triumph of the forgiveness of the victim over the guilt and shame of the perpetrator.
On a personal level, in the experience of the Christian, the Triumph of the Cross is the conquest by divine love of our affections. Then we who see the Cross can say with Paul, “He loved me and gave himself for me . . .; so it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross
[Scripture Readings: Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17]
In 1934 the Veterans of Foreign Wars put up a seven foot cross far out in the Mojave Desert to remember soldiers killed in World War One. It is in an extremely remote location that is rarely frequented by humans. In 2001 a former Park Service employee sued the government demanding that the cross be removed. The ACLU gladly took on the case and atheist and humanist organizations among others helped fund the lawsuit. Lower Courts agreed with those offended by the cross. It finally ended up at the Supreme Court which, by a 5-4 vote, said the cross could stay. Two weeks later thieves cut through the mounting bolts and stole it. It has not been replaced.
More recently, 11 year old Kandace Smith was thrilled to receive a small gold cross necklace from her parents on her birthday. She wore it to school where officials ordered her to hide it inside her blouse or be suspended.
In November of 2006 the College of William and Mary ordered the cross to be removed from the school chapel. The school president had received twenty complaints that the cross was offensive. Thousands signed a petition protesting the decision. About them the president said, “They’ll get over it.” Under continued pressure—threats of lower donations—he allowed the cross to be placed on the altar on Sundays only.
What is it about the cross that so badly threatens people today? 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 second reading today, St. Paul calls it kenosis; self-emptying. It is the necessary condition for following Christ in a radical way. It is necessary 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.
Since the twelfth century, the monk’s 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 monks 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 w/o 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 and it is the consent given at profession that consummates the monk’s life-long consent to self-sacrifice. Only love can motivate and sustain that consent. Anything less than wholehearted consent invalidates both acts.
Both vocations are characterized by renunciation of control and by the agreement to receive on another’s term just as those characterized the life of Christ. Receptivity of the gifts of God—of His will for us—is what kenosis enables. What God, our spouse, and our monastic brother 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.
The actions of self-donation—marital or monastic—are vowed. They are vowed because one knows self and one’s weaknesses, where one will be inclined to selfishness. Vows will override this. 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 world view cannot understand. It teaches us that “he is not a fool who gives up what he cannot keep, for the sake of what he can never lose.”