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The Holy Cross is an invitation to faith, to life, to love

On the Readings for Thursday, September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

"St. Jerome in the act of contemplating the crucifix", by Guercino Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) []

• Num 21:4b-9
• Ps 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
• Phil 2:6-11
• Jn 3:13-17

“By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us.”

These words, from the Vespers celebrated on this feast day by Byzantine Catholics, proclaim some of the mystery, hope, and paradox of the Holy Cross. There is the mystery of the death of the God-man, the hope of salvation because of His death and Resurrection, and the paradox of finding joy in such a bloody reality. In the words of the Crucified One, prior to His ascent onto the Cross: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32).

The Epistle and Gospel readings on this feast day focus on the relationship between the Incarnation—the entrance of God into history as the man Jesus Christ—and the exaltation of the Incarnate One by His death on the Cross. That relationship is, of course, at the heart of Christianity, for belief in the Incarnation and the salvific work accomplished on the cross are central for Christians.

If Jesus was not truly God and truly man, Christianity is simply another school of ethics; if the Passion and Resurrection did not take place, Catholicism is merely a ritualized exercise in empty piety.

The reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians is a great Christological hymn offered in thanksgiving for the Incarnation. Although the Son was equal to the Father, He emptied Himself. What does that mean? Much scholarly ink has been spilled over this difficult theological question, but the essence of this emptying, or kenosis, is the perfect acceptance of God’s will. The willingness of the Son to be sent by the Father for the salvation of man is a major theme in the Gospel of John. “You know me and also know where I am from,” Jesus declared in the Temple, “Yet I did not come on my own, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true” (Jn 7:28).

This can also be seen in the third chapter of John, in which Jesus states that God “gave his only Son” and sent His Son into the world so “the world might be saved through him.” In that same discourse to Nicodemus, Jesus stated that no one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down. This is one of many claims to divinity made by Jesus, who foretold His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, even as He revealed that He had been sent by and from the Father in heaven.

This raises a significant point about the Cross: it is not a sign of God’s wrath, but a concrete demonstration of His love for man. The Romans used the cross to punish, kill, and control. God used the altar of the Cross to forgive, to destroy death, and to offer eternal life.

“Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below,” wrote Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity, “It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about.”

The Cross, then, is an invitation to faith, to life, to love. It is a revelation of the nature of God. It is also a sign of contradiction and a source of scandal.

This is what Jesus meant when He spoke of being lifted up. I know people who, when they see a crucifix, are disgusted and appalled. I also know a young lady who, after being an atheist for several years, finally crumbled on her knees before a crucifix and wept, broken and healed.

“We exalt his Name with great rejoicing,” continue the Vespers, “and glorify his infinite condescension.” Amen!

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 14, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Who would have thought? “Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us”. Certainly not a flummoxed Lucifer. We believe because this the most compelling spoken word is its own justification possessing its own supreme intelligibility. God has spoken to us in Christ’s Cross and we require no other rationale. Love that speaks for itself, making the tender heart believer hardening further those who refuse. Olson’s opening words gifted to us from the Byzantine Catholic rite in which he worships say all.

  2. “Lord by thy Cross and Resurrection thou hast set us free. Thou art the Savior of the World (an acclamation after Mysterium Fidei).” St. Paul said things like, “I glory in nothing but the Cross” “Makeup in yourselves what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” “God sent an Angel to beat me” “My Grace is enough for thee, for it is in weakness that power comes to perfection”. The Cross is the mystery of salvation. The Ven. Mary of Agreda says that when Christ received His Cross he spoke to it. Telling the Cross “For this I have come, I have long awaited thee” and our Lord with great reverence kissed his Cross. St. Pope Paul Vl stated, “At the Council, we spoke of freedom, not the freedom to do as we please, but freedom from sin.” For those who embrace their Cross in union with the Passion and death of Christ, they know its true greatness. They know the sufferings and the Joy of the Cross. The sufferings are real but when God’s chastisement is over then comes a true Joy of having been delivered from attachment to sin which is the greatest freedom one can experience. The Cross saves us and if offered to God as our Lady of Fatima asked, it saves souls from eternal damnation. I highly recommend the short book “Friends of the Cross” by St. Louis of Montfort. The Cross is the school of Jesus Christ. Live as to graduate from this school with Honors.

  3. Noble work by the author, a delight for all who revel in the Lord.

    Psalm 150:1-6 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! …

    Hebrews 13:15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

    Thank you Carl.


  4. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall not lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:37-40

  5. We read: “The Cross […] is a revelation of the nature of God. It is also a sign of contradiction and a source of scandal.” And, the Cross is ALSO a revelation of the nature of MAN: “Christ the Lord…by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, FULLY REVEALS MAN TO HIMSELF [caps added] and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

    So, for the Synod is to deal “fully” (!) and truthfully with the LGBTQ “tension”—rather than simplistically blessing these tragic symptoms of loneliness—it must turn instead to BOTH real science AND the theological insights found in revelation…
    SCIENCE? Brain scans reveal that the dopamine damage done by ADDICTIONS is much the same for heroine addicts and, for example, for porn addicts, etc. Our disintegrating culture spawns loneliness…which is caused by and causes the loneliness of broken families (absentee fathers…), sexual abuse, early sexual experimentation and getting locked-in at an early age.

    Not true, the clericalist evasion that “God made you that way.”

    Instead, the Successors of the Apostles are “sent” by Christ (apostello: to be sent) as the magisterial guardians of the truth about BOTH God AND Man. At our very core, we are not meant in this century or any century to be betrayed, entrapped and falsely “blessed” into bogus fixes for underlying loneliness.

    REVELATION? The Russian novelist Dostoevsky, in his “Crime and Punishment,” speaks of a “subterranean solitude” that is deeper than sin, AND of a still deeper fellowship! The theologian Luigi Giussani says it this way:

    “. . . yes, religion is in fact that which man does in his solitude; but it is also that in which the human person discovers his essential companionship [!]. Such companionship is, then, MORE ORIGINAL to us [!] than our solitude…Therefore, before solitude there is companionship, a companionship that embraces my solitude. Because of this, solitude is no longer true solitude, but a cry [!] calling back that hidden companionship” (“The Religious Sense,” Ignatius, 1990).

    A CRY! Butt, is the Synod on Synodality even “listening”?

    Why does the quack James Martin get a pass while Courage International ( is, shall we say, inadmissible? How is the “field hospital” church to PRESERVE and PROCLAIM the true “human ecology” of the incarnate Jesus Christ? The inborn natural law; the created and revealed reality of moral absolutes (the Decalogue, Veritatis Splendor); and unconflicted human flourishing as in Humanae Vitae and the Theology of the Body?

  6. Augustine gives us further insight into the depths of the crucifixion and God’s love. He says, The resurrection is God’s most marvelous work. The reason is that by all rational presumption, all logical sequence, we should have all been condemned for our sins in crucifying Him. The ultimate rejection. That He rose from the dead changes the entire structure of justice from condemnation to forgiveness. It reveals to the human heart what infinite love is.

  7. Thank you Carl for a wonderful meditation. It made me think of St Francis of Assisi who constantly contemplated the Cross of Christ.
    – As a revert, St. Francis became a Brother of Penance under his local Bishop Guido.
    – Christ spoke to him from the Cross at St. Damiano.
    – When he and his first Minor Brothers were told by the Pope to preach, he had Brothers walk out of Assisi in 4 directions to make a Cross to evangelize the whole world.
    – The habit makes a tau Cross. He loved the tau letter because it made a Cross shape.
    – It is difficult to find anything he wrote that does not mention the Cross.
    – He taught the Brothers to pray: “We adore You, O Lord Jesus Christ, in this Church and all the Churches of the world, and we bless You, because, by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world.”
    – He received the stigmata.
    My prayer is that the Cross of Christ is at the heart of the upcoming Synods.

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