If you are not Catholic, the idea of the cross may be just as shocking and appalling to you as it was to people in the ancient times. In ancient times, the cross was an awful symbol, similar today to an electric chair.
As a Catholic, I grew up with a clear vision of the cross. A crucifix was always front and center at all of the churches that we went to growing up, and the idea that it was an appalling figure to some never even crossed my mind. Then one day, on my way home from school, I stopped at a red light. A young woman on the sidewalk randomly screamed through my window that, “Jesus saves!” I remember nodding my head in agreement, but then she proceeded to forcefully ask me why I had an “electric chair” hanging from my rear-view mirror. She shouted at me—as she waved her pointed fingers to the sky—that I should believe in the “God of the Resurrection,” and not the brutal death he endured. As I glanced over at my Benedictine crucifix (one known to ward off demons), I politely smiled at her and drove away. At that time, it was a theological discussion I wasn’t ready to have with her. Yet, unfazed by her accusation against my beloved crucifix, I clutched it, and shook off the encounter.
Even at that young age, the cross was woven into the fabric of my being. The cross was something that I had learned to love. Just as Christ embraced and leaned into his cross, I was on a journey towards understanding my Christian calling to do the same.
Why is the cross so important to the Christian faith? Because it is essential to it! Apart from the cross, we have no sign of eternal life, or eternal redemption. As Saint John Paul the Great one said,
“The cross is planted in the earth and would seem to extend its roots in human malice, but it reaches up, pointing as it were to the heavens, pointing to the goodness of God. By means of the Cross of Christ, the Evil One has been defeated, death is overcome, life is given to us, hope is restored, and light is imparted.”
See, as that woman tried to convince me that the cross had no meaning–as she pointed her fingers to the sky telling me to turn to the God of the Resurrection–I knew in my heart that to understand his resurrection, I had to also be looking towards his cross.
The two go hand in hand.
Jesus Christ crucified is an off-putting image to many—especially many Christians. They look away from the cross in horror and fear, yet it is there that we find the meaning of his incredible, self-sacrificing, eternal, and total love for us. While it is true that the visual image of our Lord suffering in agony on the cross is ugly and brutal, the reason for the way he died cannot be—and should not be—dismissed or overlooked. The ugliness of the cross reflects the real horror of the human condition. It is on the cross that Christ faces all of the ugliness humanity has wrought in the world, and it is there that he turns to it and says, “See, I make all things new.”
While it may be difficult to look at, Christ begs us to see the meaning behind it. As he cried out, “I thirst,” he was revealing to us God’s profound love for us; a love that extends even to the most brutal points of death. He thirsts for our love so deeply that he was willing to lay down his life for us. In his pain and agony, he shows how far he is willing to go because of his love for us, and opens up a door to a new life for us. In taking on the sins of humanity, he—though sinless—purchased for us the rewards of eternal life. He showed us in the merits of his agony, that suffering cannot be eliminated from the equation of life—but it can be elevated to new meaning. It can become redemptive.
Through his cross, Christ not only exemplified what redemptive suffering looks like, but condescended to the lowest points of human nature in order to show us that we are not alone. His love on the cross extends far beyond time and space, and in his agony, he is with us as we bear our own crosses and endure personal torments and pain. Through his death, and by his resurrection, he shows us what it means to conquer death. He shows us what it means to open up our hearts with eyes of hope! He teaches us that no matter what we encounter in life, no matter what cross we have to carry, he is with us through it all, and promises us that there will be an everlasting end to our suffering, and final rest, communion, and eternal happiness with him in heaven.
The cross is also a commissioning. We know well from Matthew 16:24 that Christ also calls us to take up our crosses. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’” The calling to be like Christ in this manner, is not easy. To be a disciple of Christ means we have to turn and confront the ugliness in our own lives. Christ purchased for us the rewards of eternal life by means of his cross, but because he created us with free will, he also calls us to respond to this divine gift he has given to us. The calling to pick up our crosses means that we must confront our own sinfulness, and in sorrow for turning away from the God who loves us, repent. We are called to live lives of total, self-sacrificial love, to make ourselves a gift for others, to look upon suffering with eyes of hope, and to have a deep trust that Christ never fails us, even when we are in pain.
For all these reasons, we venerate the most Holy Cross of Jesus. The sweet and fragrant scent that comes forth from the wood of our crucified Lord, enkindles in our hearts a strength that is unwavering.
When Christ resolved to enter into Jerusalem for the last time, he freely chose to pick up his cross and carry it.
He asks us to do the same.
When we run from the crosses we face, we lose ourselves.
When we lean into the crosses we face—with the strength and grace of Christ’s love—we gain our life.
This is why we exalt the most Holy Cross of Jesus. We see in it the everlasting, and profound love of cross on the precious beams.
Happy Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Cross!