Solemnity the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God … coming in human likeness… humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
One of the interesting cultural developments of in our country today, is the phenomenal growth in popularity of the so-called romance novel which today accounts for 50% as sales of fiction in this country. These generally lighthearted novels focus on romantic relationships and their development, and they characteristically end on an emotionally satisfying and optimistic note. In other words, these romantic novels have the kind of ending which is very much contradicted in actual life by the huge divorce rates in our society and otherwise unhappy endings of so much of what we refer to as romantic relationships. This contrast between real life experience and the experience of these novels is so startling that it it may well be that these novels are so popular because they are a form of escape, in many cases from unhappy relationships of love and disastrous endings of marriages. There is nothing new in all this, because such romantic notions of love can be traced even back to the Middle Ages; it seems that love is never been an easy thing in real life.
But if these novels serve as an escape for many people, their popularity also may point to a very real desire of the human soul to find that perfect love relationship that will fulfill a natural desire to love and to be loved that is part of the human person’s makeup. Love is certainly at the center of man’s desire for happiness, as the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his Familiaris Consortio, saying “the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion … is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” That statement is not something easily accepted or understood in our world. But one might well ask, if love is the fundamental vocation of every human being, why is it that true and lasting love seems so difficult to achieve? And why is it that so many human relationships of love fail in our world? How can love be said to be the natural vocation of mankind with such levels of failure? Indeed, the pope goes beyond this assertion about love and says in his Encyclical “The redeemer of man”:
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
Of course, when the Pope says that man cannot live without love, he is not speaking about just any kind of love, and he is definitely not speaking about the kind of romantic love described in these novels, a love which remains for the most part on the emotional and physical level of man’s being. No, Pope John Paul is speaking about a much deeper kind of love in the human soul that, unlike merely romantic love, survives and even grows in the midst of human tragedy and the breakdown of other forms of love. He is speaking of the kind of love that most people do not understand, and do not know that they they even have a capacity for, and a profound desire for in the depths of their heart, the only kind of love that lasts forever, even beyond the limits of death itself.
But where do we find such love? What is it? How can I myself acquire such love that never dies, that even death cannot destroy? These are in truth the ultimate questions for man’s quest for fulfillment and happiness, and in a way these questions are beckoning the hearts of many who are so attracted to these romance novels because these stories end on a note of happiness and fulfillment, which is what we all want in the depths of our hearts.
No one has to be educated to understand the nature of romantic love, because that kind of love is so close to our nature, a kind of natural love that fulfills man on the emotional and perhaps even psychological level. But the love that triumphs over even suffering and death has to be learned. It is not really natural to us, at least not in our condition as sinful creatures whose first parents long ago abandoned this supreme love in the Garden of Eden. It is also foreign to us their descendants because we too have often abandoned this love in our lives by our own personal rebellion against the God who is that love.
We are all just like our first parents. And we are just like the Israelites who treated God like a slave whose job was to do their will. “Get us out of Egypt into the land flowing with milk and honey”, they promised, and we will “love” and obey you. But they would not love and obey the Lord even after they were delivered by the intercession of Moses from the deadly sting of serpents in the desert and even after they entered and finally possessed the Promised land.
That’s us, is it not? God, if you will be good to us at every moment, we will make our way to Church on Sunday to give you your due, often grudgingly. But let anything really bad happen to us in this life, and then will we complain and spurn you by staying away until you learn your lesson and begin to treat us with love! Well, maybe were not quite that crude, but do we not often treat God like he is our servant rather than our greatest lover? In today’s gospel, John the evangelist speaks to us about the way God treats us, the way God loves us in spite of our infidelity, our self-centeredness, our rebellion, our failure to love him who has loved us so much, who created us out of love and for no other reason than love: John tells us:
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.
And what world is it that John says God loved so much? It is our world, the world we have sullied and warped with all of our sinfulness. It is not the world of the paradise that he created for man, but our wounded world, which, says John, he loves so much that he did not want us to perish through our sinfulness and rebellion. In spite of our wretchedness and our ingratitude and sin, our Creator truly wanted us to have eternal life, which is another way of saying he wanted us to have eternal love.
And how did he manifest his great love for us? He did it by quite literally giving up his only begotten son to us, for us, so that we might believe in him and not perish but have eternal life and infinite love as our own. But when John says that God “gave” his only son, there is a much deeper meaning to this word “gave” than when we use it. Paul speaks of a deeper meaning in today’s second reading: Paul says that God love is manifested in this, that,
“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
Here we see the deeper truth of this “giving up” by God of his only begotten Son. God surrendered the Son into our hands so that we might not perish and that we might have eternal life. The Son, in turn, gave himself up to death for our sake, death on a cross, for Jesus was perfectly obedient to the will of the Father who gave him up, and he surrendered Himself unto death for our sake. This is what Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel when he says that when the Son of Man is lifted up, those who come to believe in Him will gain have eternal life. This is what is concretely happened to Jesus because God loved us so much. The Cross on which Jesus dies teaches us like nothing else can what is meant by that supreme love that conquers even death. Indeed, possessing and living this divine love is our true vocation and the only real possibility for us of an unending happiness. This is precisely the “love of which there is none greater” that Jesus speaks about, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But wait, here it is not just a man who lays down his life, but a man who is also God, and on the Cross we see the infinite love that is God perfectly manifesting itself through the love that takes Jesus to His death, and that man is capable of when united with God. The sign of that divine love is now and forever the sign of the Cross which we honor today with a special feast.
Non-Christians have always found the central image found in our Catholic churches a bit odd if not repulsive. What other religion has as its identifying image the crucified founder of the religion? As St. Paul tells us, the pagans found the centrality of the crucifixion in Christian belief and art to be madness, and Paul’s own people found it to be a profound scandal. Surely the Messiah was not to end his life in this way!
But for Christians, from the very beginning, the image of the crucified Savior was never a symbol of despair or defeat, but of love, the love of which than which there is no greater, and the victory of this love over death. Some Christian churches have chosen to raise an image of the risen Lord in place of the crucified Lord, and they perhaps so this to express the Christian belief that death into the resurrection not in defeat. But while this may be well-intentioned, we ought to be very careful before abandoning the crucifix which has been the central symbol of Christianity from the beginning. An image of the risen Lord is certainly an image of victory of life over death; but it is the image of the crucified Savior that is an image of the victory of love over death. That is the mysterious root of all authentic Christian devotion to the crucifix – it reminds us of what the deepest kind of love really is, what it has accomplished for us, what the love of God really must be for us, and what kind of love we are called to experience and live in our daily lives. It was the love of the God-man on the cross that revealed in the most mysterious and unexpected way the depths of the love of God, the God who is love and the mercy that flows from that love. And simultaneously it revealed in the man Jesus what love in a human heart is capable of accomplishing in this world, nothing less than the redemption of a fallen race.
You and I are made in the image of God and by Baptism we have become the image of Christ, called to embrace His cross for the love of our neighbor, as he did for us all. Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, then, is not some kind of macabre Christian fascination with death and tragedy, but a celebration of the Christian people of the love of God and the love of the God-man Jesus Christ, which is manifested above all on the Cross. This is the love of which none is greater; this is the love that surpasses and fulfills every other form of love; this is the love that is our true vocation and our real possibility for happiness that never ends. Embrace the Cross of Christ and you will know and experience His love.