“Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable. It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation—very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory. The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world”. (St. Andrew of Crete)
These are words that serve to open our reflection in this feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross. Yes, I have placed the word “holy” before the Cross, to remind us once again that it is, for us who believe, a sign of salvation and the instrument through which our Lord won for us new life. In a society and culture such as ours, we are used to seeing this symbol; we see it everywhere and we have grown to be familiar with it, so much so that even lamentably we have lost sight of its true and sacred significance. It has become part of fashion, which isn’t known for its modesty and decorum many times: that which is the holiest of signs has become profane among other profane symbols. Hence, this day is an invitation to us to rediscover the meaning of the holy cross, to exalt it, and to live its message in our lives, so that, with the grace of our Savior, we may be able to share in his life, won for us on the cross.
Basically, the cross shows two things to us: in the paschal mystery of Christ (his passion and death on the cross, and then his glorious resurrection from the death), of which the Cross is its supreme expression, the Holy Spirit has proven the world wrong about sin (cf. Jn 16:8-9). It puts before us the reality of sin. The cross was the price for our sins. The first reading of the Mass of today’s feast gives us an idea of what sin actually is: in the story of Israel’s rejection of God and lack of trust in him by their constant complaining, we see that they are attacked and bitten by serpents, and many of them die. In answer to their pleas for forgiveness and healing, God instructs Moses to fashion an image of a bronze serpent on a pole, upon which the people must gaze if they wish to be healed.
Whenever darkness gets the better of us, when we allow sin to get the upper hand in our lives, we are like the Israelites, who, despite of seeing the many wonders that the Lord has done in our lives, still reject his love, refuse to live according to his commandments, and not place our confidence in his power. For this is basically what sin is: a rejection of God’s law and of his love; when we think that we know better than him in how to live our lives, when we think when we know better about what is really good, in what can us destroy us. It is basically a lack of trust, a lack of submission to his will, and a weakening (if not an absence) of the obedient love that the creature has for its creator, that a child has for its Father. Tragically, the consequence of this is always death.
But God, who wills that all men be saved, did not leave us to our own death. Notice how strange is the command to fashion an image of a serpent, made by a God who had commanded the people not to make images of animals and worshipping them. And yet this is something that he enjoins Moses to do; he tells them the people that if they want to live, they have to gaze upon the bronze image as if their salvation depended on it, an aspect that is very much alive in worship and adoration.
The passage is very rich in signs and symbols. In the image of the serpent we see foreshadowed the salvation done by the Son of God, whose humanity was fashioned in the womb of the immaculate Virgin, the same humanity possessed by Adam, whose disobedient marked the entrance of sin into the world. The second reading, taken from the letter of Paul to the Philippians, speaks about the humility of the second Person of the Trinity: he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. But this humility was not enough for God, as the Apostle continues: ..and being found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. By taking up our sinful humanity, he defeated sin and the devil in his own turf. Just as the image of the serpent was able to thwart the deadly effect of the serpents’ bite in the people of Israel, so was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (who died on the cross in obedience to the will of the Father and out of love for sinful man) able to save us from death and grant us a new life of grace.
This is the second part of the message of the Cross. The message does not end in the darkness of sin, in the silence of the grave, nor in the despair of the tomb. The holy Cross is glorious because it is the instrument of Christ’s glory, symbol of his victory, throne from which he reigns, and upon which our redemption was won. For us it is the ark that leads us over the deadly waters of sin, allowing us to arrive in the Promised Land, which is none other than the salvation that is given to us as a gift from God in Jesus Christ.
The power of the holy Cross is made present in our lives whenever we take up our daily battle against sin in all of its forms. The Cross shows its power whenever we struggle with God’s grace to rise above our weaknesses day by day, minute by minute, and respond humbly to the call to conversion. The Cross makes us more like Christ whenever we try to live for the other, putting an end to our selfishness and egoism.
Let us pray that the power of the Cross may continue to shine our lives. In a society that shows itself to be living in darkness because of its staurophobia (the fear of the Cross), the world needs witnesses to its power and salvation.