Invented by the Persians and perfected by the Romans, crucifixion was considered to be the cruelest of all forms of execution in the ancient world. Designed to act as deterrent, the victim was subjected to great physical pain and distress and often left to die over a period of days. To the Jewish people it was the most accursed of all forms of death and a sign that the victim had lost all hope and connection with God.
Today’s feast marks the finding of the true cross by the Empress Helena in 325 A.D. and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem some ten years later. However, this feast is more than just the marking of historical events. As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross, we are invited to take a moment to reflect on the great mystery of our redemption in Christ, and by doing so to understand that what was once a symbol of death and rejection has become for all Christians a powerful symbol of God’s abundant love and offer of life. After all, there can be no life without death – no resurrection without the cross.
The accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus are the core of the Gospels. Each evangelist takes a different perspective and approach in his description and detail. While never denying the horrors of this form of execution, each evangelist situates the story of the Passion and Death of Jesus in the context of his Gospel portrait of Jesus. Mark uses the narrative to prepare the early Christians for the coming persecutions which begin in Rome and fan out to the rest of the empire. Matthew picks up Mark’s thread and highlights the isolation and the feelings of abandonment that fall from the lips of the Crucified Savior. Luke uses the story to put an exclamation point on the Gospel which focuses our attention of God’s gift of mercy and forgiveness, as Jesus prays for mercy for those who crucified him and the thief who hangs next to him while still hanging in torment on the cross. John portrays Jesus as completely in control, envisioning the cross as a kind of throne upon which the King sits and proclaims that it is finished.
The cross ceases to be a symbol of defeat as Jesus rises from the dead and defeats death itself. That is the core of this feast day. Jesus does indeed hang on the cross in agony and pain, but as the Gospel and, indeed, the first reading from the Book of Numbers hinted at, Jesus is equally lifted up and is a sign of healing for all who gaze upon him. We are told over and over in the Gospel that just as Jesus took up his cross, we are to pick up ours and follow after him if we wish to participate in his glory.
A story is told of someone who prayed and asked God to lift the cross under which he was suffering, claiming that it was too heavy to bear. God answered the prayer and told this person to go into a room off to the side, place his cross in a corner and then to pick another cross from among the many that were stored in the room. He looked through all of the various crosses which were available to him. After carefully examining each cross, he decided on one that he thought would be best fitted to him. He came back, and when he showed God which cross he had chosen, God quietly remarked, “But that is the one that you said was too heavy.” God has chosen a cross for each of us to bear. St. Anna Schaeffer, a German laundress canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in her letters to others, the cross is our key to heaven. This is what we celebrate today. As we declare the exaltation of the cross, we look forward to our own exaltation when we arrive in heaven.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator