Saturday, September 14, 2013

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today we Exalt the Holy Cross of Christ. This is one of those feasts, like that of Sts Peter and Paul, the Assumption, to name just two, that is of ancient origin and so is celebrated by Christians in the East and West, both Catholic and Orthodox (excepting Old Calendar Orthodox) on the same day. Hence, it is an important feast.

It was on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross that St. Mary of Egypt had her life-changing encounter with Christ. An invisible force prevented her from the entering the Church in Jerusalem in which the True Cross was being elevated and venerated by the faithful. She tried going into the church several times, but each time she was stopped, unable to move forward. Shaken up, she went to a corner of the churchyard and was suddenly struck by the wickedness of her life and began to be contrite. Only then did she realize why she was not able to enter the church. She burst into tears and started to beat her breast. As she did so, she noticed a statue of the Blessed Virgin above the spot where she was standing. She began to implore our Blessed Mother to help her, to allow her to enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross. She promised to turn her life around and go wherever she might be led. After this, she was able to enter the church and to venerate the Cross. Afterwards, she was led across the Jordan River, where she spent the rest of her life as a hermit.

Writing in Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright notes something that is an appropriate reflection for today:
Celebrating Jesus the world's rightful king- as we see them doing in our earliest documents, the letters of Paul- was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly "lords." But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: "Pagan rulers ... lord it over their subjects... But that's not how it's to be with you" (Matt.20:25-26 [ellipses in original]). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of "this world" make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn't do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice- and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus's kingdom isn't like that. With him, the irony works the other way around. Jesus's death and his followers' suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven
With everything going on presently, this strikes me as a good reflection, especially as we continue to pray for peace in Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, throughout the Middle East and, indeed, the world.

It's not enough to exalt the Cross as a ritual and liturgical act. If we don't exalt the Cross in our own lives, then all of that is but an empty gesture. Our worship should encourage and empower us for living- there must be a strong connection between the two. The twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we covered in our next-to-last session on this book last Wednesday, teaches us quite well about the role the Cross plays in our sanctification. In verse seven we are exhorted: "Endure your trials as 'discipline'; God treats you as sons."

The Greek word used for "discipline" in Hebrews 12:7 is paideia. Paideia primarily refers to comprehensive training and education of children, but can be undertaken by adults, including intellectual and moral training, as well as training and care of the body. It is a feature of paidea to employ reproofs and to consist of whatever cultivates the soul, especially correcting mistakes and curbing passions. "Discipline," in this verse is not punishment, not by a long shot. The sacred author goes on to note that if you reject the Lord's paidea you are a nothos, that is, a "bastard," not a child.

Let's face it, Jesus does not beckon us to follow the path of least resistance, but summons us to take the path of greatest possible resistance, which is the path to inconceivable glory. It is only in the light of the Cross of Christ that we come to experience for ourselves the saving truth of its paradox and to know what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10).

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