Thursday, September 14, 2006

Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross

A few days ago I wrote that Jesus would be lifted up, that is, crucified, for our salvation. Today is the feast of the lifting up, or exaltation, of the Holy Cross. There’s a play on words here. To exalt the Cross is to praise and honor it, yet we literally lift it up during the special rite at Matins at which we bless the four directions of the earth with the upraised cross, singing “Lord have mercy” hundreds of times. So we exalt Him who was lifted up on the Cross, and we lift up the Cross as an exaltation of the Lord our God, worshiping Him, for He, the Lord, is holy, as the psalmist says (Ps. 98/99). Even though we read the Gospel of the crucifixion today, the liturgical texts present this feast as one of joy and glory. This feast is the other side of the coin of Good Friday, and the two feasts of the Cross occur at opposite ends of the year.

Included in the Gospel reading is Jesus’ giving of his mother to the beloved disciple and the disciple to his mother. In the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God as the “Joy of all who sorrow,” it says that she adopted us at the foot of the Cross. That is a beautiful way of putting it. It is as if we were lying there, orphaned and banished from our true home because of our sin, and the Mother found us and presented us to the crucified Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He looked at us with compassion and said, “Behold your mother.” Now we are no longer orphans, for through the sacrifice of Christ, God has become our Father and Mary our mother.

But there is more to being adopted at the foot of the Cross. We have to understand what it means that precisely there we became children of God and of Mary. Lovers and spouses recall with special fondness the place they first met, as a graced moment in their lives, the beginning of the life of growing love that would follow—a kind of reference point that defined the direction of their whole future. For us, this reference point, this place of decisive and graced encounter, is the Cross. It is the place of the sacrificial death of the One who loved us first, who secretly called us to this meeting place, hoping to mark our lives indelibly, setting us on a course of a life of love and fidelity, consummated in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The paradox is that the fountainhead of our life and joy is the deathbed of the Beloved. It is so for two main reasons: by his death He took away our sins, the only obstacle to our life of love with Him and to our everlasting joy in the new Paradise of the redeemed; and also because his death would be followed by resurrection, so our grief would be short-lived and our joy everlasting. At the night of his death and burial there are tears, but joy comes with the dawn of his rising to ever-glorious life.

We must see, then, in the
crucifixion of Christ, more than suffering and sorrow, more than tragedy and injustice, more than the malice and blasphemy of those who murdered the innocent Lamb of God—we must see love, and we must see glory. For the evangelist John, the crucifixion was an integral part of the glorification of Christ. Indeed, as the Lord was about to begin his Passion, He said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified…” The Gospel tries to convey the mystery of the beauty and glory of God in the suffering and humiliated Man of Sorrows. The Pope has used these two Scripture passages—“You are the fairest of the children of men,” and “He had neither beauty nor majesty”—to highlight this mystery. Christ is the most beautiful of human beings, yet at the climax of his life He had neither beauty nor majesty. Through such a paradox, the Pope says that the Holy Spirit “sets before us the totality of true beauty, of truth itself.”

“Whoever believes in God,” he goes on, “knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also involves wounds, pain, and even the obscure mystery of death… Beauty wounds, but that is precisely how it awakens man to his ultimate destiny.” Beauty in its fullness is the “glory of God on the face of Christ” (2Cor. 4:6), be it the face of the newborn King in Bethlehem’s manger or that of the bleeding Man of Sorrows on Golgotha’s Cross. To be wounded by beauty is to be called to transcend the merely aesthetic and to enter the heart of truth, of reality. The beauty on the face of Him who “had neither beauty nor majesty,” as the eyes would perceive it, was the beauty of truth and love. It is a beauty experienced in one’s heart and spirit.

As I wrote some months ago, this beauty is a counter-argument to that which declares beauty an illusion, which sees the violence, horror, and degradation of this fallen world the only actual truth and reality. A certain one-sided view of human history may seem to confirm that. But this is precisely why the “fairest of men” accepted the loss of his external beauty: to manifest that the enduring, profound beauty of divine truth and love can shine through the darkest night, the deepest horror, the most excruciating pain. The fact that there is ugliness and absurdity in the world should not make us think that these are the ultimate realities, but should urge us to seek the hidden beauty, the deeper truth about what God has made. It is man who has disfigured the face of the earth and then proclaimed this distortion to be the fundamental truth. But Christ came to dispel the lie and to manifest redemption and transfiguration in this fallen world.

The transfiguration of Christ on Mt Tabor is one aspect of his glory, one that we might more easily identify as glory. But it is noteworthy that St John does not relate the event of the transfiguration in his Gospel, even though he was an eyewitness of that most extraordinary event. This is for two reasons: first, his whole Gospel is meant to be a transfiguration account, a revelation of the glory of Christ, from the very beginning—“we beheld his glory” (ch. 1), “Jesus…manifested his glory” (ch. 2), etc—and more to the point, the evangelist wanted to show that it is precisely in the lifting up of Christ, his simultaneous humiliation and exaltation on the Cross, that the glory of God is revealed. John is the one who told us that God is Love, and it is the love of God revealed in the self-emptying, self-sacrificing, complete and total oblation of Christ (“He loved them to the end,” ch. 13) that is the measure and manifestation of the true glory of God—even more so than the awe-inspiring, taboric experience of the blinding radiance of Uncreated Light.

So let us look upon Him whom we have pierced, and humble ourselves before Him with love, gratitude, and adoration. Let us, in our contemplation of the inscrutable mystery of the Cross—the place of our profound and life-changing encounter, of our divine adoption—see the love, the beauty, and the glory of God shining on the face of his Son. And therefore let us not flee from the Cross, from its inexorable demands, from its call the share the sacrifice of the Beloved, so that the love and glory of God may take root in us as well, and bear fruit in a life of faithful service, profound gratitude, and a willingness to follow the Lord wherever He leads us. If we lived this life wholly and simply as a grateful response to the forgiveness of our sins, it would be a life well-lived. We exalt the Precious and Life-giving Cross today, not merely as a fitting ritual tribute to the Lord, but as a personal pledge of fidelity, a recognition of his boundless and sacrificial love, and a grateful recollection that only there, the place of the death of the God-Man, were we born anew from his pierced heart and invited to return to Paradise.

All of this, as St Paul says, seems like foolishness to those who live by the “wisdom” of the world, who deny the Cross and mankind’s desperate need for a Savior—that is, to “those who are perishing”—but to us who are being saved, it is the power and the wisdom of God.