The Cross in History and in Life
We adore you, most holy Lord, Jesus Christ,
here and in all the churches throughout the whole world.
And we praise you,because by your holy Cross,
you have redeemed the world
Franciscans recite this nearly every time we pray together. Francis encouraged his friars to pray this when entering any church. The Cross looms large in our Christian lives. It is the major symbol of our faith: atop church steeples, on furnishings, in our homes, offices and cars, and jewelry of all sorts. Years ago on a quiet night I decided to count the number of crosses in and on St. Peter’s. Counting the pew ends, doors, altars, windows, art work, shrines and the façade, there are over 900! The cross embraces us!
Sunday, September 14 we celebrate The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast steeped in history and tradition. The Alexandrian Chronicle recorded that Empress Helena (mother of Constantine) discovered the Lord’s cross on September 14, 320. In 335 the Churches of the Cross and Resurrection were consecrated in Jerusalem and the relic of the Cross found by Helena was exposed for public veneration. That service turned into an annual event which became a feast on the liturgical calendar. It was celebrated in Constantinople in the 5th century, in Rome by the 7th century. It was that original public exaltation (lifting up) that gave this feast its name along with the Gospel of the feast.
Scriptures chosen for the Exaltation declare everything we believe about the Cross. John 3:13-17 – Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 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. The story of Moses in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9) gives us a foretaste of the Cross while Philippians 2:6-11 helps us deeply admire, love and honor the humility of Christ on Calvary. His obedience to the Father brought salvation for all people, once for all time. The gift Jesus brought about through his suffering, death on the Cross and Resurrection lives on in human life.
We are baptized into the Paschal Mystery. We live the Cross simply because we are imperfect human beings who live in a very imperfect world. Suffering is inevitable and so is the hope that God will raise us up to new life. It takes no time at all to remember or see today the pains and heartaches in our bodies, our families, our hearts, our world. The atrocities occurring in the Middle East and in Africa are shocking. How can humans inflict such horrific and vile actions on one another? Yet we are surrounded by the exact same disregard for the sanctity of human life in our own cities. Violence, hatred and lack of respect for the other never bring about good; they only cause suffering. When the common good is left out, people only know hardship, pain and agony.
Jesus was a good Jew and, as such, encountered his share of suffering because he was so obedient, so faithful to the will of his Father. Millions of believers follow his steps to Calvary and we are constantly challenged by life events to somehow make sense of our sufferings and carry on in the joy of Christ. Paul gave the Galatians one way of doing that when he wrote in chapter 6: may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. It takes time to learn how to, first of all, accept suffering graciously and then, place it in the hands of God and walk on in faith.
I have never, ever believed that God gives us cancer, tornadoes, accidents and even death to “test us.” That’s not our God at all! Life brings us weather phenomena, diseases, hardships and death. How we accept all of life through the eyes of faith takes courage and strength. Read Luke’s Passion Narrative and see a Jesus who was frightened to the extent of hematidrosis, a natural human occurrence under extreme duress. I believe Jesus died from physical horrors and a broken heart, too, as he hung on the cross and saw only his mother, John and a few other faithful women; the others he loved so much were absent. Witness the tears of the parents of gunshot victims – that’s the Cross! Hear the screams of children enduring chemo – that’s the Cross! Hold the hand of a dying parent – that’s the Cross! Hear those infamous words “you have breast cancer” – that’s the Cross!
When Paul wrote that we are crucified to the world, his own life was filled with suffering. He bore it all bravely, everything from shipwrecks to outright hostility, beatings, jail and execution. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we live intensely in the world we experience all of life intensely. Our faith is the one constant that can weave everything – good and bad – into a seamless garment of God’s providence and care. The parallels we see between our lives and that of Jesus is the source of strength that allows us to bear the hardships of life and keep walking with the joy of God within us.
In 1224 St. Francis prayed: My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die. The first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of your most bitter passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which you, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring suffering for us sinners. (I Fioretti, part 2) He prayed this, according to the sources, before he experienced the intensity, intimacy, pain and profundity of the Stigmata.
September 17 Franciscans celebrate the Feast of the Stigmata. It occurred in 1224 high atop Mount La Verna, a mountain in Tuscany given to Francis by Count Orlando for prayer. The early sources describe the event as a moment of prayer or a vision. Francis tried his best to hide the wounds of Christ for the last two years of his life and it was never publicly spoken of until his death in 1226 was declared in a letter by Br. Elias, minister general of the Order.
Francis was imbued with the humility of Christ in Bethlehem and on Calvary. When he heard the crucifix at San Damiano “speak” to him in 1205 it was the Crucified who embraced him and called him to a life of penance. It was not just the image of the Crucified Christ which moved him; it was the fact that Christ obeyed the Father to the point of an ignominious death that gave Francis the desire to imitate Jesus perfectly. That imitation reached the pinnacle of mystical heights on La Verna. His prayer of desiring to know the pain and excessive love of Christ became a lived reality.
On the Feast of the Stigmata we read that same passage from Galatians 6, along with a passage from Luke: Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (9:23-26) Every day? Yes. The Paschal Mystery never takes a vacation because we are baptized into it and live it daily, like it or not. Rather than look upon it as a burden, I prefer to embrace the Mystery as a way of life, a means of shaping our human existence, a framework to make sense out of pain and also rejoice in moments of triumph.
We reach a point in life when we learn the Cross is for us, as it was for Jesus, a way to accept suffering and also a source of triumph and new life. How else could some POW’s keep going when forced into slave labor during WWII? What gives a vowed celibate the ability to see beauty and freedom in the promise to not be exclusive in relationships? How can parents accept the challenges of the teen years along with the joys of seeing a child graduate from college? What gives the Church the power to survive centuries of human imperfections and still be a brave witness to the goodness of God and dignity of life?
The Cross is the major symbol of Christianity and the three branches of the Franciscans. Here you see the Tau within the outline of the San Damiano crucifix. Tau is the last letter of the ancient Hebrew alphabet and represented the fulfillment of the entire revealed word of God. That letter (also in Greek) was used by early Christians as a sign of the Cross of Christ and used by many religious groups including followers of Anthony the Hermit. These men were in Assisi and Francis worked with them in the leprosarium. He gradually used the Tau as his signature. The San Damiano Cross, so famous in the Franciscan world, may have been painted in the early 12th century by a Syrian monk for the tiny chapel on the hillside below Assisi dedicated to St. Damian. This crucifix contains the entire Christ mystery in one work of art: Crucifixion, Resurrection and Exaltation. Francis and Clare loved this Cross; the original hangs in her Basilica. For millions who’ve also come to love it and use it for prayer, it’s not just an image of the Mystery of Christ. It’s a mirror image of our own lives when we faithfully frame our lives within the Paschal Mystery.
Clare wrote to St. Agnes of Prague: O most noble Queen, gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, as you desire to imitate Him. If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him. If you weep with Him, you shall rejoice with Him. If you die with Him on the cross of tribulation, you shall possess heavenly mansions in the splendor of the saints and, in the Book of Life, your name shall be called glorious among people. (2nd Letter to Agnes)
In this month of September, I encourage you to learn about the theology of the Cross in our Franciscan tradition. A good source to begin with is Crucified Love by Sr. Ilia Delio, OSF. In chapter 6, The Mystery of Crucified Love, she writes that Saint Bonaventure’s De Triplici Via defines compassionate love as “sharing the pains of the utterly blameless, meek, noble and loving Christ. The emphasis on compassion gives rise to transformation by which the old self is destroyed and the new self recreated in Christ. Compassion draws us into the mystery of God as love through the poverty and humility of the Crucified.”
I am personally very grateful for our Franciscan spirituality of the Cross. I have learned to accept the difficult things life has presented to me that are irreversible. The Cross that unites us with the suffering and triumphant Christ in compassionate love is uppermost in my heart; it allows me to accept hardships and pain as a part of life that has been redeemed by the Cross of Jesus. If we weep with Him, we shall rejoice with Him, wrote Clare. And isn’t that so often the case, for example, when someone we love deeply dies? Though the heart physically aches, God’s grace, the compassion of others and our Catholic heritage and funeral liturgy combine to offer the same hope that Jesus certainly must have known when he cried out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That ultimate moment of surrender on his part is mirrored in so many moments of human life, especially at death. Challenging and heart-breaking as it can be, we look to the Cross to know that death is not the end of the story; God transforms the pain of earthly life into the glories of the Heavenly Banquet.
St. Bonaventure so eloquently wrote in his Soliloquium: Christ on the Cross bows his head, waiting for you, that he may kiss you; he stretches out his arms, that he may embrace you; his hands are open, that he may enrich you; his body is spread out, that he may give himself totally; his feet are nailed, that he may stay there; his side is open for you, that he may let you enter there.
May these two great feasts bring you closer to God through the Cross. God bless you for your faithful support of the friars and ministry of St. Peter’s in the Loop.
Peace ~ Fr. Bob Hutmacher, ofm