Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the fifth Sunday of Lent:
When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
Speaking to the Cardinals who elected him as the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, these were the words of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the Sistine Chapel on Thursday evening. Amidst the excitement of the past few days, even weeks, in these first words, our Holy Father reminds us not simply of the primary purpose of this season of Lent – which now enters a more intensive final phase – but of the Christian life more broadly. Without the Cross, we cannot hope for the resurrection; without the Cross, our sins are not taken away.
The Cross, then, is not simply a barbaric instrument of torture and execution. It stands as a sign of contradiction, in fact, to the death which the world sees it portraying. It is, in fact, a sign of hope, even a sign of life, and so we can also say that it is – in a profound way – a focus for glorification. The saving acts of the sacrifice of the Cross are, in fact, the means of our salvation in Christ, and so the event of the crucifixion can rightly be understood to be something which we celebrate and for which we give glory to God, in stark contrast to the expectations of the world. For this reason, as we enter this time known traditionally as Passiontide, the Church gives us the beautiful hymn Crux Fidelis to sing in the Liturgy of the Hours: Faithful Cross, above all other, / one and only noble Tree, / none in foliage, none in blossom, / none in fruit thy peer may be.
We are reminded of this, too, by today’s reading from the Epistle to the Philippians. All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his suffering by reproducing the pattern of his death. In embracing the Cross, in taking on ourselves the Lord’s own suffering and death, we take our place in the resurrection of the dead and claim our heavenly reward.
In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer at this Mass we acknowledge to God the Father, that ‘through the saving Passion of [his] Son the whole world has received a heart to confess the infinite power of [his] majesty’. The action of Christ’s passion and death, in other words, gives meaning and purpose to our proclamation of God’s love to the world. How is this so? The Preface continues by telling us: ‘By the wondrous power of the Cross your judgement on the world is now revealed and the authority of Christ crucified’. Through the Cross and the sacrifice of God the Son, the Father has shown us and the whole world his fervent hope, born of love, that we should be saved and brought to the safety of our eternal reward in the heavenly Jerusalem.
That ultimate action of God’s love, too, is what brings us to this place each and every Sunday, and each and every day. The love that God has for the world is what urges us to give thanks to him for the salvation offered to us, by offering and re-presenting in the Eucharist, the one sacrifice of Calvary. The Mass is the source of our communion with God while on earth, preparing us for the eternal banquet of heaven. And it is the primary means by which we receive the grace we need to reach that final place of rest. It is also, however, the place of our encounter with the Lord, and so it is the focus and means of the work of evangelisation. We are brought to the altar in order to encounter Christ, and we are sent from it in order to take Christ to the world as the means of hope. We encounter Christ, too, in the lives of the poor and destitute; how often do we forget that – even in those like the adulterous woman in the Gospel – we find the image of Christ deeply imprinted, often hidden from view by the sin of the world but still there, and still Christ!
In these final days of our pilgrimage through the desert of Lent, then, we turn more intently toward the Cross, and the saving and loving action which takes place there, and which unfolds in the drama of Holy Week. We turn to the crucified Lord, because his passion and death represents for us true liberation and true life. It is for this reason that we hold the Cross in such high regard, as a sign of contradiction to sin and death. It is for this reason that – as the throne of Christ the King – it is the focus of our glorification. By it we are made free and are given eternal life, and so we proudly proclaim: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world!