Fr. Steve offered Mass for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (the Triumph of the Cross) at the Word on Fire chapel this morning. Here is the text of his compelling homily, calling us to consider the great paradox of this celebration.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, also known as the Triumph of the Cross.
The strange paradox of this celebration is obvious. The brutal humiliation, torture and execution of the Lord Jesus are remembered by Christians as not only a triumph but as an occasion for celebration.
Think about that.
For us Christians, the image of the Crucified Savior is one that has been placed before us all our lives. We are told that the meaning of the event and its representations in art and literature is all about God’s mercy and love, and because this message is so often repeated and reinforced, the terrifying reality of the cross might escape our notice.
But the truth about the cross is inescapable. God suffered this way. God died this way. And curiously enough he accepted this particular kind of death and made it a gift for us. That is the great mystery of the cross and the great mystery of our Christian faith.
The meaning of the cross is not just its brutality. It is, so to speak, multivalent- it means many things, but principally it is about the kind of God that we believe in. God in Christ accepts for himself the full implications of human existence, immerses himself in its totality and as such accepts that he will experience in his human nature suffering and death. He does this so that his promise of fidelity to us will be irrefutable.
Christ goes into the deepest reality of human existence, and because he is God, he remains present to that reality then, now and forever. In all of the events and circumstances Christ is present and working.
Suffering cannot frustrate his ultimate purposes. Death does not have the final word. God’s power manifested in Christ overcomes the cruelty and violence of the world.
The cross reveals God to us and displays the manner in which he relates to us, to history, to the powers of the world, indeed to all creation itself.
The history behind today’s celebration is also interesting to note. It begins with the piety of a Roman emperor’s mother, who made pilgrimage to the Holy Land to retrieve the relics of the crucifixion and enshrine them with honor as the crown jewels of the Roman Empire.
This woman was Helena, the mother of Constantine. It was Constantine who ended the outlaw status of the Christianity and gave the Church privileges that would lead to the Faith becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with. We are still coming to terms with the legacy of Constantine for good and for grief.
But reflection on this legacy is not for today.
Today, we might remember Helena’s pilgrimage and what a surprising reversal it was for those relics to arrive in the capitol of the Empire that had used the cross as a means not only killing Christ, but as a means of assuring that not only would he die, but everything he stood for would die as well.
The relics were brought into the city in the kind of triumphal procession that the Romans had reserved for the victories of Caesar over his enemies. How ironic then! It was Caesar who bowed low before the relics of the cross, demonstrating it was Christ, not Caesar who is the true Lord of the nations.
Fr. Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.