Father Joseph Komonchak-Triumph of the Cross-September 14

  • Father Joseph Komonchak
  • Sep 14, 2008
  • Series: Father Joseph Komonchak Homilies

    Exaltation of the Holy Cross - September 14, 2008 - Blessed Sacrament

            This feast is celebrated on the day that St. Helena is said to have discovered the remains of the cross on which Christ died, and the liturgy invites us to reflect on why the cross has become such an important symbol within Christianity.

            This linkage with the cross goes right back to our baptism. In a little ritual that can be traced back to the second century, at the beginning of the baptismal cereemony, a cross is drawn on a person's forehead by the priest and by the parents and godparents. St. Augustine would often remind his people that they were so signed with the cross. (Our familiar sign of the cross appears to begin some centuries later.)

            Perhaps because we are so used to it, or perhaps because most of our crucifixes rather play down the horror, we may not reflect on what a remarkable transformation it was that turned an instrument of torture-the word "excruciating" even has the word cross (crux) in it-into a symbol that we can be so comfortable with as to wear it on a necklace, or think nothing of marking one's body with it. Imagine if we were to go into the church of African-Americans and find a hangman's noose, the instrument of lynching not so long ago, in the place of honor.

            The reason we can do this, of course, is that when Christians look at the cross, it is not death that they see first of all, but life. Or perhaps we should say, with St. Augustine, we see Life dead so that the dead may live. Augustine played with the paradoxical phrase: Vita mortua, Life dead: Life, by dying, brought the dead to life. Our Alleluia-verse a minute or two ago was taken from the Good Friday liturgy: "We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Cross you have redeemed the world."

            Our Gospel reading includes the familiar words: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." Our second reading tells us how much that Son loved us when it quotes from one of the very first Christian hymns: He became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." When we put the two verses together, we see how and why the Cross has become the symbol of love, of God's love and Christ's, the love by which we are redeemed and given new life. The instrument of death has become a symbol of life.

            These verses also should be enough to overcome an unfortunately widespread view of the cross and death of Christ as if it was the blood-sacrifice that God demanded so that he could love humanity again and restore it to his grace.  God was not alienated from us. St. John insists upon it: the whole work of our redemption begins with God's love for us: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." God was not alienated from us; we were alienated from him, and the depths of our alienation is measured by the fact that we did not recognize his Son. God did not put his Son to death; human beings did, we did. And it was not Christ's sufferings in themselves that redeemed us, but the love that brought him to endure even death on a cross as the price of his fidelity. Christ emptied himself to the point of experiencing even the depth of evil that we know in death so that he could bring us up with him into the life of his resurrection.

            None of the feasts in which the Cross is central are gloomy feasts, then. They are not celebrations of evil and death. They celebrate a life that even death cannot kill, and enjoying that life even now, we know already that "Death is swallowed up in victory!" And we already begin to sing, "Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?"

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