[A Sunday homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross from 2008. . .this one has never been preached. Our Sunday Masses in Rome were celebrated in Italian, so I never presided at one or preached at one.]
Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
Go out, come back. Leave and return. Go out, come back. Exit and enter. Egress, ingress. Exitus, reditus. We are made, and we return to our Maker. How? The Cross. The cross of Christ Crucified is the via media, the middle way from God and the middle way back to God. From God: creation. Back to God: re-creation. Being made and lost, we cannot return to God without God. He set in history—human events, the human story—the means for our return to Him: Christ on the Cross, crucified as one of us, fully human and fully divine—a bridge from here to there. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” And Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, […] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, […] he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Now, we should hear the familiar refrain of our salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And so we are saved from the eternal return to nothing from nothing; we are made perfect as our Father is perfect; “being merciful, [He] forgave [our] sin and destroyed [us] not.”
We say: amen. Or do we? If we accept this gift, we say: amen. And then what? Carry on as before? Do we as please? Live in constant regret that we killed God? Try to make a sacrifice worthy of the gift? The poet, Christian Wiman, in a poem titled, “Hard Night,” asks the same question this way: “What words or harder gift/does the light require of me/carving from the dark/this difficult tree?” What words or gifts does the Cross require of us? Paul writes that the coming of the Christ and his obedient death on the Cross, moved God to exalt His Son and to “bestow on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend […] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” No other words. Let your tongue confess. There is no harder gift to give than the gift given on the Cross. Bow your knees at his name. And then what?
It’s not so certain, is it? Once we have confessed the Lordship of the Christ and bent our knees to his rule, what we do next is no certain thing. With the Gift of the Cross in hand, we might worship it, take it around in procession, put it to work for our health and wealth; we might be embarrassed by its necessity or feel imposed upon to react with faint gratitude. Have you ever thought that there had to be a better way? Another way to achieve your eternal life? Something less bloody, something not quite so gruesome? Have you ever been angry with Pilate, the Jewish leadership, the mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”? Perhaps praying before a crucifix, you felt a dangerous rise of bile and wanted nothing more to do with the cruelty of a god who needs blood to love? Or perhaps you felt a dark fear that once we settled in your heart the gift of a bloody sacrifice, you would never be the same again?
Yet another poet, John Ashbery, writes, “…all was certain on the Via Negativa/except the certainty of return, return/to the approximate.” If we are afraid of the Cross, this is what we fear most: to walk the via media of Christ’s crucifixion means accepting the inevitably of joining him on the Cross. Peter, in a fit of fear and false love, denied the inevitability of Christ’s defeat and, in turn, pushed against the necessity of his own crucifixion. Jesus, knowing the certainty of his Father’s Via Negativa, pushed back, “Get behind me, Satan!” Even then, he was empty, obedient to death, and ready to die on the Cross.
Perhaps we show our deepest gratitude to Christ by emptying ourselves, being obedient to death, and preparing ourselves to die in his name. Perhaps. But what does this mean for tomorrow? For today? Sitting in a room, cases packed, shoes neatly tied, waiting for martyrdom? Nothing so quietistic as all that! Paul says that we should bend our knees and confess Jesus as Lord. Walking this path of worshipful praise cannot be good exercise if we fail to do what Christ himself did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Add to this preach the Good News of God’s mercy and teach what Christ himself taught and we have beginning for our gratitude, just the barest start to what must be a life given over wholly to the path of righteousness. That’s a lot to fear. Especially when you know that the one you used to be will not be found again. At most you might think to “the return to the approximate.” But why?
Look at Moses and God’s people in the desert. “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses…” Not only are we made and made to return to our Maker, but we are rescued from death by the death of Christ on the Cross and expected then to prepare ourselves for following him to the Cross, obedient to death, bending the knee, confessing his name, and waiting, waiting, waiting for his return to us so we can return to Him. Has our patience worn out from this journey? Do we complain against God and His Church? Our desert is not getting smaller or cooler or less arid. Our days are no shorter. Our nights no brighter. Moses wanders and we follow. And our patience, already silk-thin, rubs even thinner, waiting on the fulfillment of the promise the Cross made in God’s name.
While waiting, what do we do? Some of us persevere, walking the Way. Some of us withdraw to wait. Others walk off alone. Still others erect idols to new gods and find hope in different, alien promises. Some let the serpents bite and thrill in the poisonous moment before death. Perhaps most who were with us at first perish from hearts stiffened by apathy, what love they had exhausted by the tiresome demands of an obedience they never fully heard. Not all the seeds will fall on smooth, fertile earth. If those who walked away or surrendered or succumbed to attacks on the heart, if they are out there and not here with us, what hope do we have of going forward, of continuing on to our own crosses in the city’s trash heap? We exalt the Cross. And they are not lost. Never, finally, lost. Unless they choose not to be found.
We exalt the Cross. Lifted high enough and waved around vigorously enough, even those lost will find it. Even those who, for now, do not want to be found, may see it and be healed, if they will. But they will not see what they must to be healed if those of us who claim to walk the Way do so shyly, timidly, quietly. The Way of Christ to the Cross is not a rice paper path that we must tip-toe across so as not to tear it. Or a shaky jungle bridge over a ravine that we must not sway for fear of falling. Or a bed of burning coals that we must hop across quickly so as to avoid blistering our feet. The Way of Christ to the Cross has been made smooth, straight, and downhill all the way but nonetheless dangerous for its ease. There’s still the jeering mob, the scourge, the spit and the garbage, and there’s still the three nails waiting at the end. But this is what we signed up for, right? It’s what we promised to do, to be.
Our help is in the name of the Lord. Bend the knee. Confess his name. Do so loudly, proudly and do so while doing what Christ himself did. Otherwise, who will find us among the jeering crowd, the spitting mob; who will see the Cross if we fail to lift it high?
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