Every Friday all the priests of the diocese receive an email from the Bishop. Bishop Bradley calls it the B-mail. In one of those B-mails he once talked about visiting St. Mary’s school in Bronson. He visited on the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross. Now Bishop Bradley always likes to ask the students questions during his homily so he asked them for the definition of “Exultation.” And they came up with a good answer they told him it meant “Yeah for God, Yeah for God’s love of us.” That’s pretty good, not what you’d find in the catechism, but pretty good.
This Tuesday’s feast commemorates the discovery of the relics of Christ’s crucifixion. These relics of the true cross were discovered by the Roman Empress, St. Helena. Early in the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine went to Jerusalem in search of all the holy places of Christ’s life. She wanted to build churches at all the holy sites. When she got to the site of Christ’s tomb she found that a pagan temple to the goddess Aphrodite had been built over it. And being the empress she had the power to have the temple destroyed. And so she did, as Mel Brooks might say, it’s good to be the empress, and below the temple wreckage according to Tradition the True Cross of Christ was found.
This feast of the Cross celebrates the event of Christ’s Passion, that awe filled event in which God, in Christ, accepted the experiences of suffering and death, allowing himself to feel what we feel, even the terror of the sense of being abandoned by God. Jesus accepts death on the cross so that he might use it as the means by which he would unite his divine life to us in all things, even in suffering and in death. He died in body through a love greater than anyone has known. For Christians, because of God in Christ, suffering and death are not just sad and inevitable facts of human existence, but they have become, in Christ, potential routes of access to God. Even in these experiences, God is present and working, and even through these experiences; God can accomplish his will to save and to redeem.
Through the Cross Christ shows us the willingness of God to forgive us in the most astounding way. The cross reveals that the great covenant that God makes with us in Christ offers us the possibility of another chance. The grace is not deserved, but it is still given. Now we receive this grace in all of the sacraments, which are the fruits of the crucifixion. And once we have received this grace Christ asks that what we have been given, we pour into the relationships we have with others, imitating what Christ has done for us in the forgiveness and the charity we share with one another, forgetting about ourselves and focusing on the other. As our Lord said in the gospel, “Whoever loses himself for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
In our second reading St. James says that we demonstrate our faith from the good that we do, we demonstrate our faith by the way we love. As we know faith is the door to the spiritual life. It’s a gift from God and it comes first from God’s own initiative. Our response, our good works, comes second, all of which is inspired and supported by his grace. St. James is telling us that faith is perfected by love; faith is perfected by the gift of our self. When we help someone, we – if only for a moment – deny our own importance, acknowledging the other person’s importance. When we help someone, we are giving our life – if only a small portion of it – for them. Perhaps, this seems exaggerated to say that I gave my life to someone, but what is life other than a series of minutes? To give a few minutes to help someone is to give a little bit of your life for them. To give years to a spouse, a child, a church community is to give your life for them. This is how we imitate Jesus, who gave his life for us. This is how our faith is perfected, by our practice of love. And it takes a lot of practice and if we mess up we go to reconciliation and start again, and again, and again. God is so good.
St. Catherine of Siena describes our faith, as expressed in love in three stages. And she uses the image of Christ’s body hanging on the Cross as the image of our spiritual faith journey. These three stages are not exclusive of one another and all three stages can be present in the same person. At the first stage our affections begin to undergo a conversion we begin to turn away from sin. At this stage we embrace Christ’s feet. At this point our love for God and others may still be self-centered and maybe fear based. A major motivation for our conversion is to save ourselves and to avoid the pain of sin and eternal damnation. This is a great place to start. And even if we’ve made great strides in our spiritual life we sometimes fall back to His feet.
The second stage of the spiritual journey is where we begin to understand important truths about God and ourselves and this is symbolized by the wounded side of Christ. The purification of the soul continues and there is growth in virtue and understanding. Our love at this stage is that of a servant. We love the Lord and are willing to serve Him, but we very much expect a reward both now and in eternity; there is still self-centeredness to our love.
The third stage is symbolized by the mouth of Christ. At this stage there is a profound and abiding union with Christ. Our love has grown and become purified to that of a truly loving, faithful son or daughter, or friend, or spouse. We see our Lord face to face. At this stage we love the Lord and others with a purified and unselfish love that truly cares for the well-being and interests of the other. The focus now is not on what we are getting from the relationship but on what we can give. Our focus is on the other and how to please Him.
Whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will save it. The only way to preserve oneself to attain the ultimate fulfillment for which we are created- is to be willing to give oneself away in love.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley