The Exaltation of the Cross: The symbol of ignominy transformed into a symbol of victory

Five pieces of wisdom learned from the wounds of Christ on the Cross.

(James Coleman/Unsplash.com)

On Good Friday, the preeminent Day of Atonement, Mother Church focuses our attention on the Cross and on Him hanging from it. Only the most hard-hearted are not moved to pity and sorrow. Today, the Church gives us another opportunity to reflect on the mystery of the Cross, and she guides our thoughts and sentiments in a different direction as we call this feast the “Exaltation” or “Triumph” of the Cross. Today, we glory in the Cross; we even rejoice in the Cross. We wear the red vestments of royalty and victory. We sing, “Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim; let all the world adore His sacred Name.” We acclaim Jesus Christ as the “King of love on Calvary.”

At the same time, we must admit that this is at least, shall we say, a bit “out of sync” with modernity’s approach to suffering and death. Indeed, Father Pablo Straub of EWTN fame, coined a word to describe the reaction of our contemporaries to the Cross; he says our society suffers from “cruciphobia” – fear of the crucifix!

I thank God I was spared that disease from my boyhood. Permit me to share three personal anecdotes in that regard.

I had convulsions at birth, keeping me hospitalized for the first four months of my life. Everything went into remission until I was eight years old when I was hit in the head by an iron gate; that very night, the seizures returned, calling for daily medication and constant vigilance on the part of my parents, the Sisters at school, and the priests at church. An additional aspect of the monitoring was a quarterly electroencephalogram (EEG, for short), administered at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, the same place where I had been born. As some of you may know, in those early days of treating epilepsy, the EEG required that a kind of cap be secured to the patient’s head with medical thumb-tacks to penetrate the skull to obtain the brain waves. Believe me when I say I knew first-hand the meaning of excruciating pain, quite literally. I dreaded those quarterly but necessary hospital visits.

On one such occasion, my mother took advantage of the fact that the technician on duty that day was a Sister, whom she pulled aside to inform about me a bit and to ask if she could comfort me in any way. When Sister came back, she said:

Peter, your mother tells me you want to be a priest. A priest is a man of sacrifice – like Jesus the Priest. I know that when I place this cap on your head, it’s going to hurt a great deal, and I’m very sorry about that. But I want you to do a couple of things. I want you to look very intently on the crucifix on my habit as I press those pins into your scalp. See how Jesus suffered for you out of His great love. Tell Him you love Him in return, that you want to unite your sufferings to His, and that you wish to offer up your sufferings for your priestly vocation.

I did as that gentle, loving and holy nun had urged me. It didn’t eliminate the pain, but it did make it more bearable because it was placed in a bigger context – one that involved divine love, the salvation of the world, and my future life as a priest. Thanks to that nun, whose name I never knew, I have never experienced “cruciphobia” for a single day since.

My second anecdote. In August of 1998, I went to Lithuania to offer a workshop for the administrators of the newly-reopened Catholic schools of the nation. I considered it a great joy and privilege to be able to assist in the re-building of the Church after decades of oppression. My host was a young Jesuit Father, who had studied for the priesthood in the underground and then ended becoming the individual charged with re-establishing the Catholic school system of the country and is today the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Lithuania. Although time for sight-seeing was extremely limited, Father Vitkus asked if I had any “must-sees.” Without batting an eyelash, I responded, “The Hill of Crosses.” For me, that place was – and is – the perfect symbol of the Church in every age. Each cross planted there is a reminder of suffering endured by Christ’s followers; all those crosses together stand forth as testaments to the indomitable human spirit, emboldened and strengthened by the Cross of the Savior, which we gloriously celebrate today as “the triumph of the Cross.” Which is why, of course, Pope John Paul II also included “The Hill of Crosses” in the itinerary of his pastoral visit to Lithuania in 1993. Certainly, the Church in Ireland, like the Church which suffered so much behind the Iron Curtain, have a common experience, which we who never suffered will never fully appreciate and before which we must stand in awe and gratitude.

My third story: Over several years, a world-renowned rabbi and I collaborated on many projects, including co-authoring a book, investigating various theological concerns from our respective traditions. One of those topics was that of suffering. I should note that the rabbi had lost a daughter years earlier in a tragic car accident, in which he was the driver. He had never gotten over that tragedy. The day we considered the mystery of suffering, particularly of the innocent, we spoke about the less-than-happy solution to the problem found in the Book of Job. I noted that, by a happy coincidence, that particular day in the Catholic liturgical calendar was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. I went on to indicate that in the Cross of Christ, we Christians find meaning for all human suffering and death and that such pain can actually be redemptive when viewed from the perspective of Jesus’ suffering and death. At that point, the rabbi, with tears welling up in his eyes, turned off our recording device and sobbed, “How I wish I could believe that!”

All this might lead us to ask: “Just what is this mysterious fascination of Christians with the Cross and with carrying crosses personally?”

To be sure, most people shrink from suffering, yet the Jesus we meet in the Passion narratives of the New Testament marches boldly and resolutely toward the Cross with all its suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what He suffered. What does the sacred author mean by that? The word “obedience” comes from the Latin word for “listening intently.” Jesus listened intently to His Father’s will and plan, and acted accordingly. The Son of God, having learned from His suffering now teaches us – if we are willing to be educated in the School of the Cross. The founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, once remarked that we should go before the Crucified One more to listen than to speak. Why? Because wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus. What are some lessons we can learn here today?

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we see powerful proof that God in Christ, literally loved us to death. Entering into a relationship of love always involves risks, most especially the risk of rejection. Throughout salvation history God made overtures of love toward His people and was rather consistently rejected, yet He tried again in Christ His Son and then received the ultimate rejection – death. But we do not focus our attention so much on the rejection of the people as we do on the greatness of the love, so great that death itself had no power over it.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we realize that the Wounded One is at one and the same time our Healer. The jeering crowd at Calvary urged Him Who had saved others to save Himself. Little did they know that the blood and water which flowed from His wounded side would become the source of life-giving birth to the Church, which has continued Christ’s work of healing the wounds of sin and division ever since.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we discover that to reign best requires one to serve most. It is for this very reason that Jesus was never more the king than from the throne of His cross. It had to be more than Pilate’s stubbornness that kept that mocking plaque proclaiming Jesus a king over His head; it had to be a part of God’s eternal plan – in a sense giving God the last laugh on people who still could not see how a servant could be a king.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we learn how to love completely and remain true to oneself and one’s mission unto death. In one of Our Lord’s many parables, He observed that a good shepherd would be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. The Cross proves how good our Shepherd is. During His life on earth, Jesus once told His listeners that those who were faithful to the end would hear the Father say to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Jesus practiced what He preached. He was – and is – Fidelity Personified.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we are taught how to believe in a loving Father when seemingly abandoned by Him. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once noted that Christianity is the only religion in which even God for a brief moment sounded like an atheist as Jesus cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” But if the Lord did not finish Psalm 22 aloud, we know that He surely completed its sentiments in His heart, as that psalm concludes on a note of confidence and absolute trust in God.

Christians, then, worship for all time a Wounded Healer. And we are not embarrassed or ashamed because, as Julian of Norwich put it, we do not really look on these as wounds by as honorable scars – tokens of victory and of love. And so it is that we come today to listen to the words of wisdom that come from our Wounded Healer.

Saint Andrew of Crete reminds us:

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be canceled, we should not have obtained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of Paradise would not stand open. Had there been no Cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.

And so, a symbol of ignominy throughout the ages, the Cross is transformed by Jesus Christ into a symbol of victory. The Book of Genesis tells us that the cause of Adam’s disobedience was a tree; Jesus, ever-obedient to His Father’s Will, takes that tree and makes of it an instrument of salvation. Today we see that good does ultimately triumph; Jesus has not gone down in the annals of history as an executed criminal; on the contrary, He is history’s point of reference.

Therefore, today the Church invites us to venerate the Cross of Christ. See in that invitation nothing less than the invitation of Jesus to come to Him; He Who died for you does not want your death; He wants your life. Naked and wounded, but still loving and still our King, His outstretched arms beckon and remind us, “But I – when I am lifted up – will draw all things to myself.” That drawing power of the Cross is the ultimate triumph of the Cross. Therefore, every cross borne by any believer in history gains meaning and becomes life-giving when it is brought into a relationship with the Cross, the Cross from which Jesus reigned as the King of Love and over which He triumphed in His glorious Resurrection. The Hill of Crosses, then, is not a cemetery but the ante-chamber to the life of Heaven.

Our persecuted ancestors knew and believed that – and their faith was rewarded. We modern Catholics need to learn the same lesson, not fleeing from the crosses which come our way, not blending into a pagan culture to avoid mockery or persecution, not trying to fashion for ourselves a soft, comfortable religion. No, we must embrace our own particular crosses, seeing the possibility for them to be united to the saving Cross of Our Lord Himself. I would make a special appeal to any here this evening who suffer in any way: Do not “waste” your suffering. Offer it up in union with the sufferings of our Savior, and thus make them redemptive.

With this understanding clearly in place, we have to assert that there is no room in the lives of committed disciples of the Lord Jesus for “cruciphobia.” On the contrary, we are taken up by”cruciphilia” – not fear of the crucifix but love for the Cross and for Him Who reigns therefrom.

On this beautiful, moving and exhilarating feast – a true renewal of the Day of Atonement – we make our own the plea of the Good Thief on Calvary: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And our faith informs us that we have reason to be confident that we shall receive the same assurance as did Dismas: “This day, you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

In the meantime, we make our own the refrain composed by St. Francis of Assisi and used at the Stations of the Cross: “We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee – because by Thy holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.”

(This essay was originally delivered, in slightly different form, as a homily at the Holy Mass on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, 2013, at the “Faith of Our Fathers” conference in Kilkenny (Ireland).


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 163 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, Father Stravinskas, for your beautiful reminder — particularly in those three very personal memories — why we must embrace His Cross, though every fiber of our being urges us to turn and run. Instead, we stay, we ‘take a knee’, we adore. Then we try very hard in our own stumbling, imperfect way to take up our own crosses to follow Him.

  2. “How I wish I could believe that!” reminded me of When Bad Things Happen to Good People 1981 by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner’s response to grief over loss of his son is consistent with Conservative Judaism’s understanding of God’s limited involvement in human affairs. God simply offers succor in a deterministic universe. Tragedy is bound to happen. Fr Stravinskas’ Rabbi, whether Conservative or Sephardi is consistent. Judaism is perplexed with the anomaly of God’s chosen people refused by God. Admission to “believing that” admits refusal by God is linked with refusal of God. Nonetheless God’s chosen people are capable of remarkable insight detailed in an anecdote by then Bishop Fulton Sheen in his unsurpassable series Retreat to Priests. An account told by a Holocaust survivor of the retribution hanging of a child at a Nazi death camp. The boy light in weight hung for hours gasping for life. A Jew standing with others forced to endure the horror asked, Where is your God now? The Jew who described the account pointed to the boy and responded, There he is! Whether it spelled the death of God indicative of the many who since turned atheist, or the slim recognition of the divinity in How I wish I could believe that remains I believe a mystery to be revealed in line with the Apostle’s prophetic reconciliation of the Jewish people. Why do we believe? Certainly the crowning with thorns placed on Fr Stravinskas’ 8 year old boy head by an angelic prophesying nun pierces the heart of the matter. Both angel nun and suffering child were infused with the gift of love [as some theologians describe grace] that moved them to apprehend Love.

  3. Faith is decisive in understanding and accepting the Cross: seen through secular eyes, it represents folly and failure. Peter’s prayer, I suggest, helps to enlarge our vision and receptivity: “Lord, I believe – help my unbelief.” Thank you, Fr Stravinskas.

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