Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Cross We Often Would Rather Avoid

For me September is not only the month when summer is practically gone. It’s also the month when the Feasts of the Exaltation of the Cross and of Our Lady of Sorrows come knocking on our fun-engrossed vacations with somber reminders. One, it’s not pleasure that is the center of our universe as Christians; two, it’s the cross of Jesus Christ. Three, pleasure doesn’t necessarily spell joy; four, nor does the cross necessarily exclude it. In fact, the Christian faith makes us aware of how the cross brought us the joy of salvation. A few summers ago I was a subway- and bus-rider in NYC not only because the parish I was assigned to had no extra car for a guest priest like me but also because I found public transportation the easiest way to get around the Big Apple. It could be, pardon the pun, a cross too. And here’s the irony: It’s in the subway trains and the buses of NYC that I’ve realized with the force of visual clarity how far the cross has come. From being a symbol of crime and an object of shame in the time of Jesus when Rome crucified criminals and rebels the cross has become an object of fashion I often see worn on necks, ears, wrists etc. of other subway- and bus-riders. I don’t know, though, how far our understanding of it has gone.

Our world has always been opposed to what the cross stands for. That’s a given that stares us full in the face. We live in a world that worships convenience, comfort and quick satisfaction of wants, more than of needs. If science and technology could, we’d all be freed from any pain or suffering. But I always remember how sobering sounded the words of an old song (that I rarely hear these days): “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden along with the sunshine. There’s got to be a little rain sometimes.” It reminds us of the voice of God through the prophets and, most of all, through his Son. My former pastor at St. Barnabas Church, Msgr. Francis Xavier Toner, who himself went through a lot of pain (he had a type of aneurysm) before going ‘home’ to the Lord, was known for a signature saying when referring to life itself and particularly to Christian life: “It’s not easy!” For him the cross isn’t simply the center of worship; it’s the very stuff of life that we must embrace. But its meaning lies in Christ Crucified.

This is exactly what our human nature rebels against. We want everything easy: from the way we’re served food (“fast food”) to the way we’ll receive salvation (“instant, struggle-free salvation”). This last has particularly made some Christian evangelizers make compromises. They tell you straight on television, “Just believe in Jesus Christ and confess in your heart that he is your personal Lord and Savior and, presto, you’re saved!” I find this personally confounding because it contains a truth that is so constantly hammered on and made to appear it’s the only truth about the Christian life. But to that I often would want to say, “Is that right? And what about the hard saying of Jesus that if anyone wants to follow him, he must deny his very self, take up his cross and come and follow him, that’s the staple of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke?” The kind of Christianity we often want is founded on what the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen called “the cross-less Christ” because we often see in life only the “Christ-less cross”. But the real Christ is the Crucified One; the only glorified cross has Christ on it.

Israel, too, thought life would be easy after Egypt. But when the Israelites were tested in the desert by hunger, thirst and the harshness of the terms of the covenant—we were never alone in struggling with the Ten Commandments, for example—they started longing for the fleshpots of Egypt. Better to be slaves wallowing in satisfaction, they collectively thought, than liberated but agonizing in the pains of living up to the expectations of Yahweh. The deadly saraph serpents reminded them of the terrible consequences of separating from God. Which is what sin is all about; it’s not God who punishes but the consequences of our rebellion because they spell what separation from Life itself is. But it was a bronze serpent that saved the afflicted Israelites when, as instructed by Moses, they looked up to it from their agony (Numb 21:8-9). Jesus himself relates it to his cross, its most profound meaning. “And 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” (Jn 3:14). In the desert God provided Israel a remedy from the very source of its affliction. That points to the irony of the cross too: the symbol of death and shame became transformed into our source of life and salvation.

A priest that I know once surprised his congregation one morning of Sept. the 15th. While giving his homily he asked them to stand to commemorate a most poignant moment in the drama of salvation: Mary “standing by” at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25). To stand by is to be in a state of readiness. Mary was always in a state of readiness for her Son but, especially like him, for the Father’s will. The sequence after the first reading on the Feast of our Lady of Sorrows says it poetically: “At the cross her station keeping stood his mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last…”

That tells us the place where we, too, should be.