Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Triumph of the Cross

Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. What does this mean to you?

I'm not a member of the Roman Catholic church, but I do the Daily Office as they do, to the best of my ability. It's a discipline that takes time to fully engage with, but I've found that I have a more serene and more gentle day when I do it, than when I don't. Go figure - praying the Psalms at more or less regular times just does that.

In the process of doing the Hours, I encounter special selections of Psalms, Canticles, and Readings for the various feasts and solemnities. Today we were celebrating the Triumph of the Cross.

The Cross is the central emblem of the Christian faith. It's displayed on most churches, it's worn around the neck of millions of Christian men and women, it's an item of veneration and awe, and it was a tool of torture and death two thousand years ago when Jesus the Messiah was nailed to it and died upon it.

It's been used as a symbol of the renewed Tree of Life, watered with the Blood of the Savior. It's been an item of controversy with non-Christians, because of its use as an instrument of execution - how can we Christians celebrate this abominable thing? Its fragments have been the goal of searches over the centuries - there are supposed to be surviving pieces of the True Cross extant to this day.

The Holy Cross - a device that was used hundreds of thousands of times by the Roman Empire to execute in a particularly cruel and public fashion those who would not bow to the Pax Romana. And one particular cross was to gain eternal status as the throne upon which Jesus triumphed over death by dying the grisly death of a criminal.

Does that sound paradoxical, or even silly?

He triumphed by dying, on the cross, in a way that was as far from a kingly reign as one could imagine.

But that's what we Christians believe. He triumphed, because Death was not the end. Three days later, he was alive. The cross was his throne, because he was exalted upon it. He was lifted up, raised above the men and women that day on Golgotha's summit. He was indeed the King of the Jews, the old covenant and the new, because no other ruler until his time could have done what he did.

His whole ministry on Earth was a pattern of upsetting and redefining the status quo. He redefined what the meaning of the Sabbath was. He threw the money changers and merchants out of the Temple because his House of Prayer had become something less than it was called to be. He told person after person that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near, and then ordered them not to reveal that fact to anyone. A lot of good that did! He brought the dead back to life, even after they had been in the grave for days. It's no wonder that the establishment feared and hated him so much.

Which of us today would find ourselves aligned more with the Pharisees than with Jesus' followers in first-century Judaea. Which of us finds ourselves seeking the comfort and stability of middle- or upper-class life, and avoiding the uncertainty of a life constantly in motion, constantly challenging the way things are done.

This realization might be called the Scandal of the Cross. Just as it was an instrument of torture and execution in Jesus' time, it's an object of challenge to our comfortable ideas of what life should be today.

We are told to take up our cross and follow him. We modern-day Americans really have a problem doing that to the extent that Jesus wants, because he sees no problem with losing our life so that we might gain it. It's almost as if there were something more important than a convenient and comfortable life today.

It's this challenge that we face each time we really look at the cross. It's this realization that we must address as we journey on that road with Jesus. Once and at the same time, the cross, even today, can be an instrument of necessary pain, and a sign of triumphing over our weaker selves. Once and at the same time, it is both death and life. Once again, Jesus has upset the status quo, and once again, we're confronted with a new and infinitely larger reality.

Today is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Today is the feast of our vicarious triumph through it.

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