14 September 2008

Homily - The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross[1]

On this most solemn of days, dear brothers and sisters, we have come to rejoice in a piece of wood; we exult in that wood on which hung the Savior of the world.

It is right that “we should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.”[2]

For the ancient peoples the cross was the ultimate sign of terror and dread and in this very sign that the world sees as the greatest humiliation and degradation we see the sign of victory that has saved us! We come today to venerate and praise that instrument of our salvation, the cross of Christ.

What is the cross if not the scale that weighed the price of our salvation? The sins of us all were weighed against the life of Christ. Our life came at a very great price, indeed! This cross, the greatest scale of all, fully satisfied the bond of our damnation and released us from our ancient debt incurred through sin.

The cross is, as it were, that great lever that lifted the world and restored it to harmony with the Creator. Under the standard of the cross we find protection from evil, though it does yet realize that Christ has won the victory once for all! While we sat in darkness, the cross transformed us into children of light (cf. Matthew 4:16 and Ephesians 5:8); while we were enemies, it made us members of the household of God; and when we were slaves the cross made us children of God the Father.

It was through wood – through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – that the prince of pride subjected us to the slavery of sin (cf. Genesis 3:1-24), and it was through wood – the wood of the cross – that the Author of Humility received as his children and as his heirs of grace. Through wood, the Devil subjected us to exile, and through wood the Most High King declared us heirs to his kingdom. Through wood we were reduced to feeding swine and wanting slop, and through wood we were received into our Father’s embrace (cf. Luke 15:12-32).

In short, it was through a piece of wood that we lost friendship with the Lord – the tree of knowledge through which the serpent deceived our first parents, deceiving them into thinking that they, too, in their pride, could be like God.

It was a piece of wood that put us in opposition with our Creator and so it is fitting that another piece of wood should bring us salvation. It was on a piece of wood that Moses lifted up the serpent of bronze when the Lord commanded the people to look upon it and be healed (cf. Numbers 21:4-9). In doing so, Moses gave us a sign to remember when the one true cross would come; it is a sign that the Lord has promised never to abandon us to ourselves.

You must remember, dear brothers and sisters, that on the Day of Judgment each of us must stand before the Lord to give an account of our lives. The holy cross will be carried solemnly in the arms of angels and placed before all of humanity. It will not be adorned with jewels or gold, for what could be more honorable, more precious, than the Blood of the Lamb? God himself will make this cross, this wood, shine more brightly than all of the stars of heaven.

The cross will be the new scales of justice on which we will be weighed and be found either lacking or accepted. The measure against which we will be weighed is none other than the measure of Christ’s own cross: how much have you loved (cf. John 13:34)?

You can be sure of this, that those who lovingly embraced the cross throughout their lives will receive their glory. You can be sure of this, as well, that those who refused to take up the cross will know only disgrace.

The cross is a footpath to those of us just beginning on the journey of faith, a highway for those of us fighting the good fight, and a secure resting place for those who have been good and faithful servants.

For the cross of Christ is the way. “Whoever wishes to come after must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” says the Lord. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

To the world the cross looks like hardship and pain, but to those of us who believe, it is a fortress against the night and an oasis against the heat. The cross bears momentary death only to reward us with eternal life. It robs us of earthly things only to compensate us with things from heaven itself. It instructs us in humility in order that we too might be exalted like the Lord our Savior.

All of the world’s wisdom has stood in opposition to the cross, and yet here we are. All of the world’s wisdom sees the cross as a sign of defeat and failure, and yet here are. All of the world’s wisdom tells us that the cross is not the way, that we must be strong and independent, and yet here we are, bending down, as it were, to kiss the holy cross.

Do not think, my brothers and sisters, that the world can be right. If you believe that acceptance of the cross or the practice of humility is a sign of weakness and failure, then you do not know the truth. For only cowards rely on brute strength, and only weaklings prey on the vulnerable. The cross is the very fulcrum which has turned the world upside down – where once there was evil sitting on the throne, now there is love.

That is what we come here to remember. For we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a scandal and to Gentiles foolishness but God’s foolishness is wiser than any human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than any human strength and so, for us who believe, Jews and Gentiles alike, the cross of Christ is nothing less than the power, the wisdom and the glory of God.

O blessed cross, O holy cross, more valuable are you than all the gold of the world, more brilliant are you than any jewels of the earth, for it is through you that we have indeed been saved. May we be found worthy to carry you with our Savior, and be raised with him to heavenly glory. Amen!
[1] Adapted from the homily of St. Peter Damian on the occasion of the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and of a homily of the Rev. Michael Fuller, adapted from the same homily of St. Peter Damian. Both in C. Colt Anderson, Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching (Chicago, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2005), 108-125 and 226-228.

[2] Entrance antiphon of the day.

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