Mar 16, 2012

Lent, 4th Sunday: Lift high the Cross

Sokolowicz: Christ of St. John of the Cross

2 Chron 36: 14-16, 19-23
Eph 2: 4-10
Jn 3: 14-21

We Catholics love to pray not only with our voices but also with our bodies. Liturgical movements during our Mass, for example, may jokingly be referred to as “Catholic calisthenics.” Considering that, we should all be in pretty good shape after an hour of liturgy: we stand, we sit, we kneel, we get up and walk back and forth from the altar, we bow, we genuflect, and we raise our hands in prayer.  As priest I’m up and down the stairs of the sanctuary, back and forth from the chair to the altar to the pulpit to the floor for distribution of the Eucharist and back to the Altar. Whew!  What a liturgical work out.
And we make what is known as the sign of the cross.  Depending on how quickly you move your right hand from your forehead to your chest to your left and right shoulder it may either appear as a reverent religious sign of faith or like you’re swatting flies.. But, these gestures of our faith all have a meaning and purpose to them. In particular, the sign of the cross has the most I believe.
In the first centuries of the Christianity, crosses were rarely visible as we see them today.  For one, the early Christians were well acquainted with that ancient form of torture and death for the hardest of criminals.  To imagine the risen and glorious Lord having died such a horrendous death was to put the focus too close to home. Also, their lives were at stake and in order to survive they needed to be cautious about overt signs of Christianity – aka the Catacombs.  
But, over time that understanding changed and by the fourth century, when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine, the sign of the cross became not a sign of torture but a sign of victory.  Wherever the cross was seen, it was the sign of the Christian faith and has remained so ever since.
As a priest I have been asked to bless everything from water, to religious items such as rosaries and statues of saints, to Bibles, new cars, motor homes, dogs and cats, new homes, motorcycles, bread and other foods.  But my greatest enjoyment is to bless people in prayer and sacraments.  In celebrating the Eucharistic Liturgy, we begin with the sign of the cross, the bread and wine are blessed +, and we end with that same sign as we go forth, “glorifying God by our lives.”+ We do all this with the sign of the cross + in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Our perspective is that everything and everyone is good as a part of God’s creation.  The blessing does not impose any magic or mysterious power on an object, building, or person but it does indicate the sole use of these religious items or things we use and live in for a spiritual and religious purpose. The family, the “domestic Church” should live in a blessed surrounding.
Our first reading and Gospel today bring salvation and the cross of Christ very much to the forefront as we now mark the mid-point of our Lenten journey.  In the Book of Chronicles we hear of the people’s unfaithfulness and murder of the prophets of God.  God’s hand is forced to bring destruction to the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. The elite of the people are captured and taken off to Babylon for 70 years. Then, God proves he will not abandon his people.  He sends Cyrus King of the Persians whose benevolent, but somewhat politically strategic move, sends the Jews back to rebuild their city and the Temple. God intervened and once again gave it another try, all the while hoping that his chosen would now conform.
The Gospel brings us the sign of the cross as the ultimate and eternal sign of salvation. Jesus explains to the well-meaning Nicodemus: “. . . the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” On the cross, Jesus was “lifted up” then to be “lifted up” again in the Resurrection. His Passion and Death, therefore, is for us the sign of salvation. Every time we see a cross atop a Church, around our necks, in our Churches, blessed over objects or people we are reminded of this great event that has brought us hope and promise.  Do you also have this sign in your homes?  God will not abandon us no matter how far we stray but has already sent his Son that we might come to believe in Him.
As we continue our journey in this mid-point we hear the sounds of Holy Week in the not too distant future. So, today’s readings, as St. John so beautifully images, calls us to walk in the light of faith and trust and to avoid the ways of darkness but to confront them when we recognize their threat. 
The history of Christianity is heavy with examples of persecution, a great darkness which never gives up. In our own day we see the present threat to Religious Liberty at stake. The darkness of a relentless secular “gospel” of individual rights pushed at the sacrifice of the common good of all people is a battle we are presently engaged in. The voice of religious ideas and morals is urged to stand aside.
The recent Health Care Mandate which forces the hand of religious communities to stand up and be counted is playing out before us right now. None of us should be surprised, in one sense, that this is happening since secular and religious forces have clashed many times before.
The issues are fundamental for us as Americans. In a recent statement by the American Bishops we hear: “. . . this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church—consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions—to act against Church teachings . . .” (United for Religious Freedom: 3/14/2012). Much information is available on this crucial topic.
So, as we journey towards Holy Week and the glory of Easter once again, let’s see those liturgical gestures not as idle actions but as a deep expression of our faith. The next times you pray, make the sign of the cross slowly with reverence not for show but as coming from your heart.