Nm 21:4b – 9 / PS 78: 1BC-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38 / Phil 2:6-11 / Jn 3:13-17
The cross of Christ understandably became a place and an object of veneration for early Christians. In response to the Jewish revolt of 70 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian leveled the top of Calvary, erected a temple to the pagan goddess Venus on the site where the true God’s blood was spilled, and destroyed the hillside where Christ was buried, building a temple to the pagan god Jupiter on that site. Ironically, the emperor, in trying to destroy these sacred sites only preserved them. In the year 313 the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire and in the year 326 work began to destroy the temples made to Venus and Jupiter and the emperor himself ordered that the cross be found. In a short time three crosses and a wood plague inscribed with the words Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews was found on Calvary hill. In 327 Constantine’s mother Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the intention of finding out which of the three crosses was the cross of Christ. Why did the emperor order this excavation and why did Helena make the difficult pilgrimage to Jerusalem herself?
Obviously the first answer lies in the truth that the cross of Christ held the body and soaked in the blood of our Lord, the same body and blood we will receive today when we receive Holy Communion. I think Fulton Sheen summarized best the importance of this discovery and of today’s feast when he reportedly said “keep your eyes on the crucifix, for Jesus without the cross is a man without a mission, and the cross without Jesus is a burden without a reliever.” Jesus transformed the cross, a symbol of death, into a symbol of life. It was by His cross that He redeemed the world.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Whether you have realized it or not we have been preparing for this feast for the past three weeks. Three weeks ago, in the Gospel reading we were asked to profess with St. Peter our faith that Jesus is the Messiah. Two weeks ago we, having accepted Jesus as our Lord were challenged to follow Him to the cross, and last week we were asked to bring others with us to Calvary so that they may obtain eternal life. So here we stand today at the cross. But why do we celebrate this feast, after all we celebrate great moments in salvation history, not objects, we honor the lives of great saints, not a piece of wood, so why do we have today’s feast?
As Christians we should exalt in the cross of Christ because it is the instrument of our salvation. In adoring the cross we adore Christ, the God-man who suffered and died on this Roman instrument of torture and in so doing won for us redemption from our sin. The cross is the symbolic summary of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior.
The cross, because of what it represents, is a powerful symbol of the Christian faithful. It should inspire both our liturgical and private prayer and devotions. Placing a crucifix in our homes, or wearing it on our persons should be a constant reminder and witness of Christ’s ultimate triumph over sin and death through His suffering and death on the cross.
Sadly today the cross is often reduced by some people in our society to some kind of good luck charm. Some athletes make a sign of the cross when getting a base hit or scoring a touchdown, other people wear the cross around their neck simply as a good luck charm without any devotion to the cross. The irony of this is the cross does not promise us worldly success: no it promises us something far greater, it promises us that Jesus will be with us through the most difficult of times. The whole meaning of the cross can be summarized with the truth that Jesus is with us.
While many people look to the crucifix with the hope that they will not have to suffer, the crucifix shows us that God choose to suffer with us, and if our savior must suffer shouldn’t we as well? While this suffering is not always easy there is a beauty in suffering. Christ did the hard work, He opened up the gates of heaven for us and showed us the path to Calvary which will lead to eternal life, but we too must follow after him and must suffer. You see God loves us and true love does not force itself on anyone thus Christ invites us into that love on the Cross so that we may share that eternal love of heaven with him.
Many people looked at Christ on the cross and saw failure, but we who know of the resurrection look to Christ hanging on the cross and see victory over death. Some Christian’s today look at the crucifix with distain, preferring only to use a cross because they see defeat in Christ hanging on the cross. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christ hanging on the cross is a moment of great rejoicing; it is through the complete emptying of Himself on the cross that we are able to gain eternal life. Let us look at the crucifix with a spirit of reverence, respect, adoration and thanksgiving and work to join ourselves to Christ on the cross so that we too may enter into eternal life.