The continuing wave of barbarism in the Middle East, which must be a cause of concern for all people of goodwill, has achieved a new low through the systematic identification and suppression of the ancient Christian communities of that region. Amongst the countless horrific and mindless acts that have been related to us in the news, one of the most sinister is the marking of the homes of Christians with the arabic letter, nun, the first letter of the word ‘Nazarene’. This practice is perhaps particularly shocking to us in the west, who cannot avoid making an unhappy comparison with the plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
Despite the unsettling nature of these events, and despite their physical distance from our own homes and places of work, many of us would nevertheless recognize this sign, were we to see it. This is because many Christians, in solidarity with those suffering, and in opposition to those who spread terror and division, have adopted this as something of a badge of honour. Whether on their clothing, or through social media, by this act of defiance the symbol has been removed from its intended purpose of fear-mongering and mockery, and transformed into an icon of resilience; subversively but clearly professing and witnessing to faith in Christ.
Such acts of resistance on the part of Christians should not surprise us. We are used to signs and symbols contradicting the expectations of the ambient public culture throughout the history of the Church, even to the extent that such symbols begin to cause offence to the very persons who first brought them into existence. We are used to holding up to the world the counter-cultural life which flows from living the gospel of Christ, even in the face of derision and violence, and the creation of new signs, including this, merely adds to the Church’s evangelical treasury, helping her to proclaim Christ more effectively and more fervently in our wayward world.
Chief amongst these signs of contradiction is, of course, the Cross, whose exaltation the Church celebrates with joy this day. The Introit of today’s Mass, which echoes the epistle to the Galatians, affirms this somewhat uncomfortable principle of contradiction: ‘We should glory in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ: in whom is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection: by whom we are saved, and delivered’ (cf. Gal. 6: 14). The Cross, which Saint Paul tells us is ‘a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1: 23), is, despite its repugnant inception, nevertheless today exalted and referred to as ‘holy’, because this device of torture and death, of shame and submission, has become the means by which we have been given the salvation and the joy of eternal life with Christ in God.
Through the sacrifice of the Lord on Calvary, the wood and iron of his Cross and nails take on a new significance for us Christians, who share now in his risen life. No longer are they tools of violence and intimidation for us, but signs of liberation, of redemption, and of eternal bliss! By the merits and precious death of Christ, even the brutal instrument of our Lord’s execution is redeemed, and sanctified, and glorified, giving us great hope in the fullness of redemption, sanctification, and glory: the heavenly kingdom prepared for us, our rightful home.
It is for this reason that the holy and life-giving Cross is of supreme importance in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. In each of the Church’s rites the sign of the Cross is made, signifying the gift of God’s grace bestowed on us through the offering of Christ on that very Cross. The saintly parish priest of Ars, Saint John Vianney, tells us that this ‘is because all our prayers and all the sacraments draw from the Cross their power and their virtue’. And this is why, also, the Cross is enthroned above every altar; why the Priest is instructed to gaze at the Cross at particular moments in the Mass. It is the reason the Cross is honoured with sweet-smelling incense and a bow of the head, and why it far from inappropriate for the Cross to be made of precious metals, adorned and ornate; because this is no longer simply the wood of death, but now the glorified ‘ladder by which we may get to heaven’. It has been redeemed and restored, just as we hope to one day be.
And this focus on the next life, on the heavenly, cosmological dimension of the Cross, is key. We embrace and adore the wood of the Cross now, restored and redeemed as it is by the sacrifice enacted thereon, because it is the means of our salvation also. As we recall in the Stations of the Cross, ‘We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world’. So we turn to the Cross, physically in our worship and interiorly in our lives, because it draws us beyond the things of this fallen world, and on to the restored nature of our humanity promised by the beatific vision. If the instrument of Christ’s death can be redeemed, how much more may we, whose sins sent the Lord to the Cross, but whose baptism in that same Lord unites us to the fruits of his sacrifice in his resurrection? The Cross, on our altars, in our homes, and impressed inwardly in our lives, is a reminder to us of the Lord’s sacrifice, and a signpost of hope that we may share in the fruits of that sacrifice. The Cross looks to the death of the Lord but, even more, looks forward to the life he desires to share with us, his brothers and sisters, members of his mystical body. Indeed, the Cross is so intimately united to the sacrifice and life of Christ, that we can say of it as we say of the Most Blessed Eucharist itself, that by the Cross ‘the memory of [Christ’s] Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory given to us’.
May this sign of contradiction to the world, glorious and Holy Cross—an instrument of death that brings life, and of suffering that relieves pain—may it be before us in all things. By its merits, may we conform our lives more closely to the pattern it demands. And may we, who are about to feed on the Body and Blood of Christ, by whom the banner of the Holy Cross was sanctified, be ourselves found worthy to venerate that holy sign, and so come to enjoy for evermore the salvation secured for us by its triumph.