The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 14 – Feast
Liturgical Color: Red
Patronal Feast of Cortona, Italy

A torture device is transformed into a universal symbol of hope and peace

If the Romans had hung criminals from a gibbet, then Catholic churches would display a noose in their sanctuaries instead of a cross. Or a statue of Jesus’ lifeless body would be hanging in the sanctuary from a sturdy branch with a rope wrapped tightly around His neck. If the Romans had practiced stoning as their chosen form of capital punishment, then there would be a pile of rocks for the congregation to gaze at in hope, with Jesus’ body, bruised and broken, lying lifeless nearby. We are accustomed to the cross. We wear it around our necks, chisel it onto our tombstones, tattoo it onto our arms, and anchor it into rocky mountain peaks. We even top our steeples with the cross and illuminate it at night. The Church has been so spectacularly successful in communicating its truths about suffering and death, about resurrection and life, that we perhaps don’t notice that, over long centuries, a device of torture and death has been reinterpreted as the world’s greatest symbol of life and peace. 

This is the paradox of the cross. Today’s feast commemorates the Cross because in spiritual combat with life, the cross lost. A conqueror might plant the head of his decapitated opponent on a spike, a soldier might return from a far-away war with an enemies’ flag captured in the heat of battle, or an American Indian might tuck the scalps of his poor victims under his saddle. Trophies of war take many forms. The Cross is Christ’s war trophy. The Church exalts the Cross on this liturgical feast because this enemy of life was felled like timber by the Son of God. The Cross was brought low and humbled. It was mocked when Jesus rose from the dead. The Church holds up the Cross to say “Behold what the cross did not do. Behold that life conquers even a cruel and public death.”

God’s self-emptying started at the incarnation. He humbled himself to walk among us when He restricted Himself to the limitations of His own creatures. God continued to pour Himself out until He climbed onto the wood of the Cross, completing the total self-gift that was His life. Our God is not like a general who sends a subordinate to carry out a dangerous mission, like an absent parent who pays someone else to raise his children, or like a physician who coldly touches his patient’s body and then washes in antiseptic. No, our God is like a surgeon who, before he cuts, points to his side and says to the patient with empathy, “I had the same—see my scars.” Our God points to the wound in His open side and says, “I too was the victim of evil and death.” God bore the Cross and its cruel death so that He could drink from the same bitter cup as man, so that He could enter more fully into the world’s sorrow. 

Death on the Cross was not preordained. God could have freely chosen other ways to redeem the human race—through intelligence, wisdom, charm, money, or education. But then, to participate in His redemption, we would have to study for a PhD, attend etiquette school, get a good job, earn an excellent wage, or receive good grades. Not everyone can do these things. But everyone can die. Death is egalitarian. Everyone does it. So God did it and “so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies,” as the graveside prayer states. The Cross, then, is everyone’s trophy, raised high with one arm, head cocked to the side. It is in this sense that the Cross is a sign of hope. Because the Cross lost the fight with Christ, death is not the final answer. The Cross says that our God does not answer the question of suffering and death in a partial academic way. He responds in a total human way. He responds with His life. He doesn’t explain; He shares. He responds with empathy by taking up His Cross and inviting us to do the same. 

Jesus Christ, Your three hours on the Cross gave that wicked device a new meaning. Through contemplation of Your sufferings, may we transform all the wickedness and sin in our lives into something valuable. May we convert evil, transform sin, and, like You, go from death to life. 

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