Given at Our Lady of the Assumption & Saint Gregory, Warwick Street:
In a few moments we will participate in what, to the world, must seem to be a ritual which is at best peculiar, and at worst perverse. In solemn procession, the very instrument by which our Lord and Saviour was executed will be carried aloft through the body of the church, to be adored and venerated. We will kneel and we will kiss the wood of the cross to which, because of our sins, our Lord was nailed. It is a sign of extreme contradiction, calling the cross the Crux fidelis inter omnes – the ‘faithful cross above all other’, the ‘one and only noble tree’.
This contradiction, though, shouldn’t surprise us: the Christian life is full of such juxtapositions. Today we ‘sing the praise of him who died’; tomorrow we rejoice at the felix culpa, the ‘happy fault’ of Adam’s sin, and at the paschal waters of the baptismal font we even talk about dying in order to live. Such contradictions not only speak clearly of the truths of our religion – the way we understand the fundamental nature of the life we share in Christ – but they are the source of our hope. In the face of inevitable earthly death, we Christians are given the hope of eternal life, and so we look gladly towards that moment when this life will be changed into the life offered to us in Christ. In the face of every human fear and anxiety, we are presented with joy and hope because, in the action of Christ on the cross – the very thing we celebrate today – death has been put to death, and in his resurrection we can join with Mary Magdalene in the beautiful Sequence for Easter Day, as we say, Surrexit Christus spes mea – Christ my hope is arisen.
The hope that Christ gives us, though a contradiction to the expectations of man’s life and death, also requires us to act in a way which is contradictory to our nature and to our concupiscence – our sinful inclinations. For us to share in what Christ gains for us in sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, we must seek to be united to him in all that we do. If we seek to share in the bodily resurrection of the Lord and in the glorification of his body in the eternity of the heavenly Jerusalem, then we must be united to his body, the Church, not simply by entering into a relationship with him, but by living lives which are constantly striving to maintain that which we are given in the moment of our baptism. In other words, it is not enough to simply call ourselves ‘Christian’, but we must live lives worthy of that name, constantly being recalled to the identity of Jesus Christ which is indelibly given to us in the waters of the baptismal font.
That means, for all of us, clinging fervently to the Lord’s cross. The contradiction of his death leading to new life requires us to contradict our own tendency to sin and to bring ourselves – kicking and screaming, if necessary – into union with Christ and his Church. As with all relationships, this requires great sacrifice from both parties – for Christ it is the death he endures for us on the cross, for us it is always conforming ourselves to his will for us, even – and perhaps especially – when we are drawn to follow our own path, our own plan for our lives.
A particularly profound gesture of our desire to live united to the cross of the Lord – to live in that sacrificial relationship with Christ – is the veneration of the Holy Cross which we will celebrate in a few moments time. In that profound action, the liturgy of the Christian Church gives a stark choice. When we come forward to kiss the cross – not as a community but as individuals within the one mystical Body of Christ – we are called to a shocking honesty and devastating openness to the will of the almighty before whom we kneel. When we kiss the cross, we will either do so with the love and affection that comes from a profound desire to be united to the Lord’s passion, so that we can share too in the Lord’s resurrection and glorification, or we will do so only in a perfunctory, even hypocritical way, betraying the Lord as did Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On this solemn and dreadful day, which Christians call ‘Good’ because we see past the devastation to the light of Easter, do we desire to live fully the life offered to us by Jesus Christ? Do we desire to be united with him, even in his suffering and death? And how, we might ask, do we make such desires known to the Lord in our daily lives and actions? These are the challenges presented to us by the cross. We know we will struggle, even fail, to keep ourselves from sin – from going our own way – but what is that we truly desire? If it is anything less than to be entirely consumed with love of God, then the cross is where we leave today’s story; if it is be conformed and utterly united to the Lord’s will then, through death we will have life, and have it in abundance.