Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Exaltation of the Holy Cross - 14 September

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Herbert McCabe OP once wondered why we have this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14th September when, as he put it, 'we already have a perfectly good feast of the cross on Good Friday'. One reason may be that the realities we celebrate in the great Easter liturgies are so powerful and central to our faith that we have to return to them at other times of the year, to have another think about them.

The feast of Corpus Christi, for example, is another chance to meditate on the events of Holy Thursday. The feast of Christ the King is another chance to celebrate Christ's return to the Father in the Ascension and his enthronement in heavenly glory. Easter itself happens every Sunday, every day even, whenever we celebrate Mass.

Today's feast of the exaltation of the Cross allows us to meditate again on the wise foolishness and vulnerable powerof God that we see in the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Part of the deal with capital punishment was (and is) that it happened publicly so that as many people as possible could see it being carried out. It happened very often on a gallows or a platform, high above the heads of the crowd. As many people as possible could then see what happened to those who broke the law - they were hanged, beheaded, shot, stoned, garroted, crucified, or whatever. People were lifted up, exalted we might say, so that their death could be more easily seen.

Because the cross of Christ has such a secure place among religious symbols it does not seem strange, weird, scandalous or shocking any more. We can forget that the cross was one of these platforms of torture and death. We can forget that the crucifix shows a dying human being fixed to wooden beams.

St Paul very quickly pointed out that the language of the cross is illogical and paradoxical, a sign of God's foolish wisdom and vulnerable power. It is a madness, Paul says, and an obstacle that some people cannot get over. But to those who have been called it is the power and wisdom of God.

We venerate the wood of the cross - exalt it and lift it up - because it was instrumental in the salvation of the world. Of course it is not a piece of wood as such that redeems the world but the love in Christ's heart. But the physical cross was the platform on which the great drama of the Divine Love was exposed, lifted up and shown to all who cared to look. More than a platform, this tree of death has become the tree of life for us. Through the death for love of the One who died on this tree, death itself has been defeated.

In a tiny way we experience something of this power of the crucified Christ in our experiences of love. Love always means opening up to the suffering of the one who is loved, sharing it with him or her, and so becoming vulnerable to suffering and pain that is not our own. It is a kind of exposure, it means taking some kind of risk, we leave ourselves open to rejection, perhaps to accusations of not really understanding, to being hurt in one way or another.

But this is the glory of love, this strength to be vulnerable on behalf of others. It is the strength of the Lamb of God whose blood seeping into the wood of the cross became the seed of new life for the world. It is the power and the wisdom of God that look like weakness and foolishness to us.

The cross of Jesus Christ rises above the mess humans continue to make of their world. Today's feast invites us to look to the cross and pray: Ave crux, spes unica (Hail O Cross, our only hope).

This reflection was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London, on 14 September 2003

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