In today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, it isn’t the cruelty of the Cross that is exalted. Rather, it is the love of God. God’s love for the world is so immense, so powerful and utterly beyond-human-comprehension that it would go to any length to make itself known. In the famous hymn from Philippians 2: 6-11, which is the first reading for today’s Liturgy of the Word, the Cross symbolizes the “nth degree” of God’s love poured out in Christ. Not only did God empty himself to take on our human form, but that human form also was a “nobody” in the eyes of the world. Even further than this, not only did Jesus die, but he died in the most torturous and degrading form of death known at that time. Pope Francis asserts: “This is the glory of the Cross of Jesus!” God’s love is a love more powerful than death. It is a love that leads to everlasting life as we hear in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3:16-17)
Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event.” In the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we look upon the one was lifted up on the cross for our sake and thus are invited to respond in gratitude in and in faith. The actions we take as a Christian, whether prayer or ministry or or just living our ordinary lives in ordinary ways, are to imitate Christ’s loving action of self-emptying. We cannot remain neutral regarding the Cross of Jesus. Either we are with Him or we are against Him. A choice is made before every action, for the actions of a Christian are none other than the testimony of how “God has loved us so much that he gave His only Son, Jesus.”
Lifting up our gaze to God expresses a very important truth: we are invited to enter back into relationship with Him. We need to stop turning in on ourselves, uselessly nurturing a sense of guilt and forgetting that “in whatever our hearts condemn, God is greater than our hearts” (1 Jn 3:20). Let us lift up our eyes toward the stars (remember Abraham and the promise of many descendants), knowing how to cast every worry onto God.
Lifting up our gaze to the cross, should not enkindle fear, but gratitude, because that elevation is the measure of the love with which God loves His children, in His Son. It is the Mercy of God, therefore, that illuminates the darkness of our lives and allows us to continue on our journey.
Most High glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Grant me an upright faith,
secure hope and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding and knowledge
that I may fulfill your command. Amen.
(prayer of Saint Francis before the Crucifix of San Damiano)
For us, the Cross is the instrument of our salvation from which Jesus accomplished his greatest ministry: the redemption of the world. The Cross of Christ, then, is a reminder of God’s great love for every man, woman and child; it is the source of our forgiveness, reconciliation and peace; it is the means by which all people are offered a sharing in the communion of life and love with God; it is the throne on which Jesus established the kingdom of God in his very person.
The cross is no longer a symbol of defeat. It is the most perfect sign of our Lord’s triumph over the forces of sin and death. The cross of Christ is the good news of God’s mercy and presence with all who suffer.
Our annual celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an opportunity for us to remember how God can use the worst and darkest human actions to accomplish his divine will. It is also an important annual reminder of how we are called to embrace the cross. (see Lk 9:23)
Jesus told us that where the Master goes, his disciples will follow. Our Lord also told us that we must be prepared to accept the cross in our own life if we would follow him. The cross for Christians is the suffering that we willingly accept as a consequence of our decision to follow Jesus. This annual feast reminds us that the cross always leads to the Resurrection, and so even suffering can be a necessary and divinely intended means of our salvation and sanctification. For this reason, Jesus proclaimed those who suffer for the sake of righteousness to be “blessed.” (see Matthew 5:11-13)
The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 15) follows immediately the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast of Our Lady focuses our attention Mary’s sorrow-filled suffering as she endured the crucifixion of her son. She is an example of perseverance through suffering. At the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:25-35), Simeon foretells of the sword of sorrow that would pierce Mary’s heart.
Altogether, there are seven traditional sorrows of Mary:
1. The prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:25-35)
2. The flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15)
3. Loss of the Child Jesus for three days (Lk 2:41-50)
4. Mary meets Jesus on his way to Calvary (Lk 23:27-31; Jn 19:17)
5. Crucifixion and death of Jesus (Jn 19:25-30)
6. The body of Jesus being taken from the Cross (Lk 23:50-54; Jn 19:31-37)
7. The burial of Jesus (Lk 23:50-56; Jn 19:38-42; Mk 15:40-47)
The key image here is our Blessed Mother standing faithfully at the foot of the cross with her dying Son, The Gospel of St. John recorded, “Seeing His mother there with the disciple whom He loved, Jesus said to His mother, ‘Woman, there is your son.’ In turn He said to the disciple, ‘There is your mother.’” (John 19:26-27). The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church wrote, “She stood in keeping with the divine plan, suffering grievously with her only-begotten Son. There she united herself, with a maternal heart, to His sacrifice, and lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (#58).
Focusing on the compassion of our Blessed Mother, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, reminded the faithful, “Mary Most Holy goes on being the loving consoler of those touched by the many physical and moral sorrows which afflict and torment humanity. She knows our sorrows and our pains, because she too suffered, from Bethlehem to Calvary. ‘And thy soul also a sword shall pierce.’ Mary is our Spiritual Mother, and the mother always understands her children and consoles them in their troubles. Then, she has that specific mission to love us, received from Jesus on the Cross, to love us only and always, so as to save us! Mary consoles us above all by pointing out the Crucified One and Paradise to us!” (1980).
Truly, O Blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart…. He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since His (St. Bernard De duodecim praerogatativs BVM).
Exultation and sorrow are the two sides of Love. “They are of a piece,” one might say. To have one, we must also accept the other. May Christ and Our Mother Mary lead us in the ways of love always.
By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB