Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped." Philippians 2:6
The cross has been a scandal since Christ first hung upon it. That what the Romans considered the most humiliating death they could imagine would become a sign of redemption in Christ is indeed a mystery. For both Jews and Greeks the cross was incomprehensible. Yet, God in an infinite wisdom that no one could imagine or predict took what others considered a disgrace and made it a sign of victory. St. Paul would write, "For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified..." (I Corinthians 1:22-23).
If you have ever been to Central or South America, you will recall in the churches seeing crucifixes that are painted in graphic detail. Rather than the clean and sterile crucifixes that we are accustomed to in the United States, the crucified Christ in these Latin countries is pictured beaten severely, bleeding profusely, and suffering extreme agony. Why the difference? Is it merely cultural? I heard this explanation offered once.
The faithful who look at these crucifixes believe that Christ saved them through his sufferings. They believe what St. Paul said about the importance of the cross. "Christ crucified..., Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:23-24). The faithful do what all faithful should do, that is identify with the one whose sufferings redeem them. If Christ redeems the faithful through His sufferings, then the faithful must see someone suffering more than they do. This is "the power of God and the wisdom of God."
The crucifixes of the Latin American countries are bloody and graphic not because those who look at them enjoy seeing blood and gore. The crucifixes are so because they communicate a suffering Christ with whom they must identify. This is not the Gospel of "health and wealth." This is the Gospel, as Jesus preached and lived it. It is the Gospel proclaimed by St. Paul when he tells us in the Letter to the Philippians, Christ "...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" (Philippians 2:7-8). This is the Gospel of folly, which God takes and turns into victory. Only in this way can death become victory.
Today we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We exalt in the cross because Christ is lifted up on it. "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (John 3:14). We look upon Christ, contemplate His suffering, realize that He died for us, and identify with His suffering. In doing this, Christ sweeps us up into not only His cross but also His victory over death. This is what it means, when Jesus says in the Gospel, "so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:15).
The cross must always be at the center of our faith. For this reason it must be on our altars, in our homes, and on our bodies as we cross ourselves. There is evidence of Catholics making a sign of the cross with their thumb on their foreheads as early as the 2nd Century. In this simple gesture Christians have shown by outward devotion and practice that the cross upon which their Savior died is the sign of his victory in which they share. If Christ saves us by obedience to death on a cross, then that cross must be ours to share.