In 1957 Red Skelton was one of the most popular comedians on TV. His show on CBS was always highly ranked. He’d come a long way from his earlier days as a rodeo clown. Red was married to a wonderful woman by the name of Georgia and he had two children a son Richard and a daughter Valentina. Life was very good for Red. But then toward the end of spring that year his son Richard was diagnosed with Leukemia. Unlike today, a diagnosis of leukemia in a child of 1957 was the same as saying that Richard was going to die, and die very soon.
So Red and his wife made two decisions. First, they weren’t going to tell Richard how sick he really was. He was temporarily in remission and outwardly he looked healthy. And second, they were going to take their two kids on a sightseeing tour of Europe. So Red took a leave of absence from his highly rated show and went to Europe with his family. The press at that time was just as aggressive as it is now. Skelton informed the newspapers why his family was going on the trip, and he asked for their assistance in helping to keep the secret from his son that he was afflicted with a mortal illness. Amazingly the American press agreed to help. It wasn’t until the family reached Britain that Richard learned the truth of his fatal illness. Reading the news, however, he said, “Everybody says I’m going to die but that means everybody but me.”
Even though the Skeltons were not Catholic both Richard and Valentina attended a Catholic school (St. Martin of Tours in Hollywood) and for the Protestant family the two high points of the trip were Lourdes and their audience with Pope Pius XII. The Pope spent a great deal of time talking to the Skeltons. He blessed Richard and all the members of the family and gave them religious medals. As they were leaving the Pope gave them these words of comfort, “Life is eternal because of God. So if life is taken away from one person in a family they are never separated because the family will always live together in eternal life with God.”
After they returned to the States, the leukemia came out of remission and it took its deadly course very quickly. Richard was quite a religious boy. His room was filled with religious pictures and statues. Shortly before dying he asked Pope Pius to send him a blessed crucifix. The crucifix didn’t make it in time. It arrived just after his death. The crucifix, the cross with the image of Jesus upon it, however, was buried with him. It was placed in his hands.
Richard, even though only nine, understood the great truth of the cross; it’s the instrument of Christ’s victory over death. It’s our instrument of victory over death and that’s why he wanted an icon of Jesus on the Cross. In today’s second reading St. Paul totally agrees and for a 1st century man he says something very odd and strange, something never said before. He says, “I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This doesn’t sound strange to us because we see crosses on steeples and in homes all the time. But to the people listening to Paul, they would’ve been thinking or saying, “What you talkin’ about Paul? That’s crazy talk!” To his listeners this was madness. The cross was something unspeakable. The most miserable thing of torture ever thought up by a cruel person. To die on a cross was a shameful death. It’s the last thing you’d ever boast about. If your son, brother, or husband ended his life on a cross you’d change the subject, if it ever came up in conversation. You would not be in a mood to boast about it. The cross was only for revolutionaries, slaves, thieves, or prisoners of war.
In his boasting of the cross St. Paul is inviting his listeners and us into the upside down world of Christian faith, where Christianity turns the values of the world upside down. Where in God weakness becomes strength and where in God death leads to eternal life. St. Paul then goes on to say, “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” In saying this Paul is not saying that he hates the physical world or the flesh. He’s not a puritan. He loves all of God’s creation both physical and spiritual and that includes the body. What he is saying, however, is that he hates the worldly power of sin, division, and hatred, all the things that contributed to the death of Jesus, all the forces that caused his death. Now over and above all of this Paul never loses sight of the importance of the resurrection. The world of sin, oppression, and hatred killed Jesus but God raised him up.
As St. Paul believed and as we believe, the cross has conquered the world. Of course there are still evil skirmishes and resistances to the cross of which we must be vigilant and give witness against, but the cross has already conquered the world. Now each one of us at baptism received an indelible mark upon our soul, this spiritual mark means we belong to Christ. And nothing can ever erase this mark. We could totally turn our back on God and the mark would still remain. Now this spiritual mark which brands our soul can also be thought of as the sign of the cross. St. Ivo of the 12th century wrote that, “For it is by the power of the sign of the cross that all our sacraments are also accomplished and all the illusions of the devil are frustrated.”
So my advice today is, don’t hide your soul’s mark of the cross. As we know this mark of the cross is not visible to the eye the only way it becomes visible is if we let the cross influence what we say and what we do. It’s not something to be kept private and separate as our government tells us. It’s not something to be put on display for only one hour a week here at St. Jerome’s. The mark of the cross, the mark of our Catholic faith, should influence everything we do all week. It should be made visible every day and everywhere to everyone. Don’t hide the mark of the cross that brands your soul.
St. Paul boasted in the cross, a nine year old boy dying of leukemia chose to rally behind the cross. And so my prayer for us today is that we always glory in the cross of our Lord.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley