HOMILY for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
A friend and I visited the National Museum of Scotland recently and there were so many things to see that we rushed around from one exhibit to another. But one display had us transfixed with morbid fascination. It was called ‘The Maiden’, a beheading machine made in Scotland in 1564, some two centuries before the French Revolution and the guillotine, and over 150 people had been executed by it. Today’s feast also seems to have at its centre an instrument of torture and execution, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. And it would be so, were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through it.
For God chose to mount the wood of the Cross as his means of showing the world the depths of his love for Mankind: a sacrificial love that is stronger than death, that conquers human violence, and that ends the reign of sin. The vertical and horizontal arms of the Cross thus remind us of God’s love that reconciles Man with God, and unites us to one another, through Christ who is our peace and reconciliation. At the same time, the Cross reminds us of the sufferings of humanity and of the wicked deeds we’re capable of inflicting on one another; a reminder of the wickedness of sin that Christ overcame on the Cross, and also that God is with us in our pain and suffering. Hence, the Cross reveals on the one hand the goodness of God and, on the other hand, the evil of sin.
Thus, the Cross becomes the true Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of that tree, greedy for the devil’s false promise of divinity, and so, by choosing to trust in another than God, their friendship with God was ruptured. But now, through Christ’s obedience and perfect trust in God, that dynamic is overturned. For, on the Cross, Jesus restores mankind to friendship with God and becomes the health-giving fruit of the Tree of Life, so that, whoever looks at it shall live. But we’re not invited to just look at the Cross but, moreover, to take up our Cross and to follow Christ: to follow him by learning to conquer sin in our hearts, to master our selfish desires, and above all, by learning to love.
Recently, there have been several high-profile court cases challenging employers who have sacked Christians for wearing a cross to work. While I disagree with the judgement in favour of the employers, the judges are right to note that Christians are not required by their religion to wear a cross. Indeed, we’re not to just look at a cross, or even just wear it – although both these practices are admirable and to be encouraged –, we’re to carry our crosses, and even, to be crucified with Christ. That is to say, we’re to learn to love as much as Christ does.
And we can do this if we receive the grace of Christ and the power of his Spirit. Hence, we’re invited in this Eucharist to eat of the fruit of the Cross, to partake in Christ’s Body and Blood, so that we shall be transformed by grace into his likeness, learning the sacrificial way of true Love. So, each time we make the sign of the Cross, we remind ourselves that through carrying our crosses, and through Christ’s Holy Cross – through Love – we are saved from death, evil and sin, and can partake in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross. For as we heard in the Entrance Antiphon taken from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered”.
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