In a certain way, the readings this morning reflect the beauty and sacrifice that is at the heart of the consecrated life. This state of life, “deeply rooted in the example and teaching of Christ the Lord, is a gift of God the Father to his Church through the Holy Spirit.” It is a sign that the individual Christian has taken to heart those words of the psalmist which we have just sung: “In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust.” Very especially, the life of the monastery or the convent is a stable means of immersing oneself in this consecration, it is a place set aside for Christ. It is a constant recalling of the individual to the heart of the mystery of God, and a constant showing forth of that mystery to the Church and to the world. By living the gospel mandate to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” religious jettison those things that encumber the rest of us, freeing them rather to possess only Christ and so also to be possessed by him alone.
The cross, which is the principle image of our Lenten pilgrimage, is an unforgiving reminder of the sacrifice required of each of us, in order to share in the passion and death of Christ, and thus also in his resurrection. Yet knowing that such sacrifice is demanded of us, we know also that, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). In other words, we know that the wood of the cross is not dead, but alive through the sacrifice enacted upon it. As an ancient hymn in honour of the cross recalls, “Thou alone wast counted worthy / this world’s Ransom to sustain, / that a shipwrecked race for ever / might a port of refuge gain, / with the sacred Blood anointed / of the Lamb for sinners slain.” The cross, which appears to others as a sign of utter brutality, is to the Christian a life giving, enabling, and saving symbol of hope. As Saint Paul says: “the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
The tradition of hearing the account of the transfiguration of the Lord on this second Sunday of the season of Lent is a venerable one. In the midst of the disciplines and penances of this sacred time, Christ comes to us in the words of the holy gospel to encourage us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness, journeying as we are from slavery to sin to the freedom of the promised land of our heavenly inheritance. By revealing his glory to his apostles, the Lord impresses on them the reality of his divine person that it might, as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it, “keep up their faith in that trying time, when the outward eye would see nothing in his person but weakness and humiliation”. As it is with the apostles preparing to witness the passion and death of Christ, so it is with us who draw closer and closer now to the unsettling events of Holy Week, when we will again become participants in the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice.
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.
There is a modern tendency to believe that the single greatest obstacle to the Church’s mission is her teaching. How much simpler would it be, we might ask, if the Church conformed her beliefs on (say) sexual morality, to that of contemporary culture? Would it not be easier to bring people to the Church, we might be tempted to think, if she was more approving of things that are now accepted, even encouraged, in the twenty-first century west? Hasn’t the Church freed herself from all the rules and regulations of the past? Why should we be bound by doctrines and dogmas that are no longer ‘relevant’? We may have heard such views from the media and those in the public square, even from fellow Catholics; we may have thought to hold such views ourselves. Either way, it is necessary to recognize why such a position is, at best, faulty, and to remedy it with an authentic Christian view, one that leads us closer to Christ.
First, we must acknowledge that the Church is, as Saint Paul puts it, to ‘proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1: 23). As we heard last Sunday, the Lord told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mt. 16: 24). This means that the Church is mandated by the Lord to proclaim something which, in the Lord’s own words, is ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor: 23). The message of the cross has always stood in stark contrast to the way of the world; that message is the reason that Christ himself was rejected. That cross is imprinted in our lives through baptism, and so we must expect to be misunderstood, even reviled, for proclaiming it as the way to happiness, the way to salvation.
This morning’s old testament reading from the book of Numbers (21: 4-9) describes a scenario that should resonate in the Christian mind. The children of Israel, passing through the Red Sea waters and escaping slavery in Egypt, are on their forty year pilgrimage to the Promised Land. They have been liberated from bondage by God, and yet they complain to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in this desert?’. In return the Lord sends snakes as punishment – the bites of which prove lethal to the Israelites, who in turn beg Moses, ‘Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us’. The Lord commands Moses, ‘Make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live’. We are told, ‘Whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived’.
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.