Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Triumph of the Cross

The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Félicien Rops

Today is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It is common to hear during Holy Week that Easter follows Good Friday. Today’s feast reminds us that Good Friday necessarily precedes Easter. The reading from today's Morning Prayer is Hebrews 2,9-10 in which we read, "it was fitting that when bringing many sons to glory God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make their leader [referring to Jesus Christ] "in the work of salvation perfect through suffering". Being made perfect through suffering is exactly why it is necessary for Good Friday to precede Easter. Stated another way, without Good Friday, Easter is impossible. It is, therefore, true that life can be and often is Good Friday, or, to borrow an image from Psalm 23 , "the valley of the shadow of death".

As Christians we share in common with Buddhists the insight that to live is to suffer. However, unlike Buddhism, which seeks to overcome suffering by attaining nirvana, the annihilation of the self, which I associate with what is described by the lyrics to the Pink Floyd song, Comfortably Numb (which is covered by the German group Gregorian, who perform Gregorian chant-inspired versions of contemporary songs, on their recent album "Masters of Chant Chapter V"). Christians do not believe this because suffering is never the last word, Jesus is the final Word. If we look to Christ, like him, we are made perfect through our suffering. Since suffering in this life is unavoidable, and avoiding suffering completely undesirable, "it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil" (1 Pet 3,17 ).

One parallel that always strikes me when contemplating the Cross of Christ is the one made by Jesus himself in the fourteenth and fifteenth verses of the third chapter of St. John’s Gospel, these verses precede the famous and overused John 3,16. We read, "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The episode with Moses being referred to is found in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Numbers, verses four through nine:

"From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.' Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, 'We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live."

When we are perishing we need but look at Jesus "lifted up." Just look that is all! Such a move doesn’t even yet require faith, a desperate hope will suffice. Hope, like faith, is a theological virtue, which is to write that it is a gift from God. We can receive this gift by merely looking at Christ lifted up when we are beset by fiery serpents in the valleys of our own lives. Whatever we are going through, it doesn’t matter what it is, has been suffered for and redeemed by our Savior. There NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING, no matter how vile or traumatic that Jesus Christ did not suffer to redeem. Therefore, there is NOBODY, absolutely NOBODY, no matter what you have done or had done to you, beyond the redemption of the Cross. Jesus calls us to the Cross when says "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" ( Matt 16,24-25).

Pope John Paul II wrote, in his 1984 Apostolic Letter, Salvifici doloris, that suffering "is present in the world to emit love, to make born works of love for our neighbor, to transform all of human civilization into 'a civilization of love.'". This kind of language can seem silly, stupid, and wild-eyed, written and said in syrupy ways by those who do not know what it means to suffer. Beyond that, as profound as it is when taken in the right way, this insight does not come close to satisfactorily explain the mystery of suffering, "which would not hurt any less," sang the late Rich Mullins, "even if it could be explained". However, John Paul II gave credibility to his words when, some twenty years later, in the twilight of his life, he made incarnate in himself that of which he wrote. By confronting his illness with courage, he brought much attention to human suffering, both physical and spiritual. In this he showed suffering has dignity and worth and also demonstrated by the witness of his life that a human being’s worth is not in his/her efficiency, nor her/his appearance, but is inherent as a person created and loved by God.

We can only understand suffering at its deepest level by uniting our own sufferings to those of the Passion of Jesus Christ. In this way, like St. Paul, we become servants of the gospel, rejoicing in our sufferings and completing in our flesh "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1,24). At the end of the day, even for the Christian who sees redemption in it, suffering is a great mystery that defies words and, understandably, causes many to turn away from God. Which makes it all the more important for Jesus' disciples to sit silently at the foot of his Cross in solidarity with those who suffer and even at times on behalf of those who suffer. In this we turn again to St. Paul, who suffered tremendously for Christ, to help articulate this mystery: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1,18).

Rather than wallow in suffering today, or any day, let us rejoice in the Triumph of the Cross as we look forward to tomorrow’s memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows and ultimately to our own Easter. One way to rejoice in today's feast and to anticipate tomorrow's memorial is to thankfully contemplate the Sorrowful mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, may "we imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise."

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