Sep 13, 2014

This Sunday: The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

(Kryziu Kalnas: Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, Lithuania)
Nm 21: 4b-9
Ph 2: 6-11
Jn 3: 13-17

Why do people choose to build a house on a hill or build a home with large picture windows facing towards the Sea?  - Because of the view.  Standing on a hill with clear weather we can see for miles.  With more mountains in the distance the view can be stunning and peaceful.

We stand to face vast endless miles of water.  We hear the constant roar of the Ocean and we marvel at the sun sparking on the waves.  If we are facing west we stand in awe, with luck, if the setting sun glows with colored hues of pink, blazing orange, red or purple.  These are scenes which move us deep within our spirit and we connect with God’s creation.

Today we stand before another view of inspiration.  But that sign is simple; just two + crossed lines. The sign is starkly simple but the story behind it is that of the greatest love ever shown.  For us Christians the cross is the sign of our salvation.  Once a symbol of frightening torture and shame in ancient Roman times our Feast today of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross reminds us of what God has done for humanity in the death and resurrection of his own Son, Jesus the Christ.  As a people of faith it should move us as deeply as the view of God’s creation in all its power.

Historically this Feast recalls the finding of the true cross in Jerusalem in the fourth century (Sept 14, 326) by St. Helena the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine.  On that hill of Mt. Calvary was built a Church to protect what remained of that cross and to mark the tomb of Jesus.  The present Church today stands on that same spot and was built during Crusader times. But today’s feast is far more than just a past historical event.  

That sign + stands as an eternal symbol of God’s everlasting mercy for all of humanity.  The sign of the cross is recognized around the world as the premier symbol of the Christian faith. It is both a sign of hope and has been shamed during times of persecution up to our own present day. Yet as Catholics in particular we may become somewhat complacent before it. 

When you stop to reflect for a moment, we realize the cross is everywhere in our life of faith.  We see the cross used in the rituals of our sacraments: We are signed at our baptism with the cross; we are sealed with Chrism and the Holy Spirit by the Bishop in Confirmation, we are forgiven of our sins in Reconciliation as the priest gestures the cross over us in the words of absolution, we bless ourselves as we begin liturgy, bread and wine are prayed over and blessed by the priest before consecration, sacred objects of devotion are blessed with the sign of the cross, and we pass our hands over our body in that ancient gesture used by the early Christians to identify themselves. We dip our hand in blessed water as we enter the Church and sign ourselves with the cross +

The cross stands on the roof of buildings identifying them as Christian places of worship. We might wear a cross around our neck or draw it on other objects.

Because of the cross on which Jesus died humankind can have confidence in God’s mercy and forgiveness and then hope to enter eternity in God’s presence and those of faith before us. If that fact was not true then everything we do as religious people would be useless and empty. Nothing we do would have meaning in our Christian lives from the Pope down to our personal prayer time if it were not for the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection three days later. So the cross is far more than just two simple lines. 

Like the Hebrews in the desert, our first reading today, the serpent that bit them then became a sign of healing and life because God changed their desperation to hope as the bronze serpent on the pole raised by Moses became their sign of healing.  The cross takes away our hopelessness due to sin and creates a new sign of joy and new life as we see Christ raised on the cross.

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi are the words of an ancient Christian hymn probably sung by early believers as they gathered in liturgy and prayer. While the melody is lost the moving words remain.  Paul uses these words to sum up the whole Christian message of God of which the cross has become the ultimate sign: “. . . he (Jesus) humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Because of this God greatly exalted him . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In our Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly at night.  In the darkness of night Nicodemus seeks the light of truth and understanding.  In answer to Nicodemus, Jesus alludes to his coming death and resurrection: “. . . and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

So, today’s Feast doesn’t teach us anything new that we haven’t heard before.  We know the Cross is the sign of a Christian and we know that it means salvation for humanity.  We have heard this in so many ways during our lives. 

But, today we can look at the cross with more seriousness and remind ourselves not only of the price that was paid by Jesus but what has come to us because of it.  We can remember to never take it for granted and always honor it not a piece of decoration but as the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

The Eucharist is the moment of connection with that one time event on Calvary more than two thousand years ago. The body and blood shed on that cross is now risen and present to us as our food for the journey of life.

Here, because of the cross we have a Church. We have our sacraments. We have the gathering of a diverse people around the world.  We share a common life in Christ. We know that we worship a God who is not distant and uninterested but who walks with us to share our joy and sorrow.

We have life and hope not death and despair all because of the Cross of Christ.  Two simple lines which God has transformed.
"We adore you O Christ and we praise you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world."  
O God, who willed that your Only Begotten Son
should undergo the Cross to save the human race,
grant, we pray,
that we, who have known his mystery on earth,
may merit the grace of his redemption in heaven.
(Roman Missal: Collect for the Feast)