By Cardinal Justin Rigali
We are beginning the liturgical season of Lent, when we meditate in a particular way on the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is a good time to reflect on the power of the image of Jesus crucified.
Recognizing the power of the Cross
In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, which eventually occurred in 1917, there were many anarchist movements throughout Russia. Many of them advocated violence as a means to reform. In 1905, one of these anarchists assassinated a Russian Grand Duke by throwing a bomb at his sled as he traveled along. As a way of recalling the murder and asking for prayers, the authorities erected a crucifix on the spot of the murder, with a plaque recalling the event and requesting prayers for the Grand Duke’s soul.
Shortly after Lenin’s victory in the Russian Revolution, he was passing this spot. He said to an aide, as he pointed to the crucifix: “Get that disgusting thing away from here.” His violent reaction to the image of Jesus crucified was an unwilling acknowledgment of the power of the Cross.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “The Cross is our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin, and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The Cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the Only-begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world.”
While we speak of the Cross as part of the Paschal Mystery of our Redemption, and we use the concept of “the Cross” in a manner that covers many of its mysteries, we must not forget the importance of the image we call a crucifix, which shows our Lord’s sufferings and all He endured for our salvation. This is always true but most especially during the Lenten season. In his encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, Pope Pius XII wrote: “One would be straying from the right path to order the crucifix so designed that the spanine Redeemer’s Body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings” (Mediator Dei, 62).
These sufferings were real and there is abundant testimony in the Scriptures concerning their occurrence and the fact that they were endured by the Eternal Son of God, who became man in order to bring about our salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Roman Catechism, which references Hebrews 12:13, in stating: “Sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the spanine Redeemer endured” (CCC, 598).
St. Alphonsus Liguori, who founded his Congregation of the Redemptorists in order to preach these truths of our redemption to the people, and most especially to the poor, used a wonderful means of catechesis. When he preached a mission in a poor mountain area, he knew that he was speaking to simple uneducated people, who might not have a mission again for a long time.
In order to teach them in a way that they would easily remember, he wrote marvelous hymns. These hymns were summaries of the teachings of Jesus and His Church. He would often sing the verse himself from the pulpit and he would have the people repeat the refrain.
One of his most famous hymns is one recalling the passion of Jesus and our responsibility for the sufferings our Lord endured. From the pulpit, he would sing:
My Jesus! What soul has dared
Your sacred hands to bind?
And who has dared to buffet so
Your face so meek and kind?
The people would then respond:
It is I who have been so ungrateful!
Yes, Jesus, have mercy upon me!
The hymn would continue in that manner, enumerating all the sufferings of Jesus, with the faithful acknowledging the cause of it all.
The journey of Lent is a journey to the cross
Lent is often spoken of as a journey. It is a journey of self-recognition, a journey of conversion and a journey of penance, all with the purpose of drawing us closer to our Lord.
Most of all, it is a journey to the cross. It is really remarkable that Jesus allows us to journey with Him. Our ability to know, to think and to love, along with God’s Word, make it possible to know Jesus and His love for us. However, He does not wish us to be mere spectators. He allows us to be incorporated into these very mysteries of our redemption.
Our whole life is a journey to the cross with Jesus. We are signed with His cross at our baptism. The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is the fruit of the Mass, which is the re-presentation, in an unbloody manner, of the sacrifice of the cross. Our sins are forgiven with the sign of the cross and the words of absolution. We are signed with the cross again at confirmation. The vows of marriage, by which a couple confer the sacrament of matrimony on one another, are blessed with the Sign of the Cross. The priest is ordained to offer the sacrifice of the cross and bring the graces and mercy of the cross upon the faithful. Finally, before our death, the sign of the cross made with the holy oil of the anointing of the sick, prepares us to receive the fruit of the cross and the reward of our faith in it: the eternal happiness of Heaven.
We look upon the symbol but we share in the reality
The crucifix is a powerful symbol because it reminds us of a powerful reality. Through the gift of the sacraments, we share in that reality. We may say that the death of Jesus is like a great dynamo or furnace that produces an endless supply of energy. In this case, the energy of mercy, the energy of forgiveness and the energy of grace.
Just as any kind of energy needs to be conducted to a place in order for the benefits of that energy to be enjoyed, so it is with the cross. Everything that Jesus generated for us on the cross is conducted to us through the sacraments. Since the supply of mercy and grace is endless, we can be forgiven over and over again and have our friendship with Jesus restored, through His mercy, whenever we have lost that friendship. What a beautiful truth this is! We may ask, then: Why are there enemies of the cross?
Part of the answer to this question is the mystery of iniquity, which we will never understand completely. It is the same mystery of iniquity that caused Satan and his followers to revolt from God. We can get some understanding of some of the attitudes towards the cross from our own human nature.
For all of us, suffering does not come easily. The reminder of suffering is also difficult to receive, whether it is our own suffering or that of others. Since the mystery of the cross involves suffering, it will always involve a “contradiction,” as Simeon foretold. We may also say that our rejection of the cross is rooted in selfishness. Just as there are those who are unwilling or incapable of engaging in human relationships because of their selfishness, so there will be difficulty with some in engaging in a relationship with a crucified Lord, who tells us that we must follow His example. This is not an easy road and it is a road which is the very opposite of selfishness.
Whether it is the mystery of iniquity, human selfishness or a conscious rejection of the things of God, the cross will always have its enemies. We are called to be friends of the cross and Lent is the perfect time to renew that friendship.
We can conclude with these words of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who knew the cross well in her own life by mystically sharing in its power and physically sharing in its pain, especially by her death in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.
She reminds us: “More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonor than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ’s cross after him. Therefore, the Savior today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: ‘Will you remain faithful to the Crucified?’ Consider carefully! If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life. (Above all) towers the cross. It is the path from earth to heaven. It will lift one who embraces it in faith, love, and hope into the bosom of the Trinity” (Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, p. 137, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, Loyola Press, 2000).
18 February 2010