John Donaghy's Reflections on the Gospel: 14 September 2003

The Exaltation of The Cross
September 14, 2003
by John Donaghy

Numbers 21, 4-9
Psalm 77: 1-2.34-38
Philippians 2, 6-11
John 3, 13-17

My name is John Donaghy, one of the campus ministers here at St. Thomas. Fr. Ev asked me to share my reflections on today's readings with you.

As I reflected on these readings this past week, I thought of how often in the past two months I had encountered the presence of suffering and death in our world.

In August two Catholic students were killed in car crashes; the memorial services here were times for friends and family to grieve. Two weeks ago, Fr. Supple, our founding pastor, fell asleep in the Lord and many of us are still mourning his passing. Friday night I saw that the funeral Mass here tomorrow is for a neighbor whom I often saw as I walked to work.

Last Thursday, September 11, our nation remembered the thousands who died two years ago in the terrorist attacks. I also recalled that thirty years ago that same day, a military coup in Chile unleashed death on thousands of Chileans.

In July I met two students in El Salvador and showed them around for a week. We visited a mental health clinic and some other projects but we also spent some time visiting sites of massacres and martyrdom. One day at Copapayo, we listened to Chico tell of the massacre twenty years ago of family members and others there; my eyes filled with tears. When we later visited the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed and the site of the martyrdom of six Jesuits and two women at the Catholic university, tears welled up in me.

In early August, at the Pax Christi USA national assembly in New York, I heard Jerusalem Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, speak of the pain, suffering and insecurities experienced by Palestinians and Israelis.

I took an extra day after that meeting to do a little sightseeing in New York City. Monday afternoon I went to lower Manhattan and approached Ground Zero. As I rounded a corner and came upon the site, the heavens opened in a sudden shower. It was as if the heavens too were weeping at the losses suffered there.

As the rain stopped and I walked around the cavernous site, I was surprised to see two girders in the form of a cross. I had seen the photo but it was still a shock to see that cross in person.

Even though people of many nations and faiths died there, it still seemed an appropriate symbol. For the cross, present at so many places of death, can help us begin to fathom the mystery of evil.

The Cross points us to Jesus. But Jesus is not a God who comes to take away our pain by pulling us out of the world. Rather, He is a God who has taken on all our suffering. He chose to experience pain, humiliation and death to connect with us, to know what we experience. And so we can today bring our pain and suffering to the cross.

But still the name of this feast day, the Exaltation of the Cross, is jarring. The cross is an instrument of death that the Romans reserved for slaves and revolutionaries. Crucifixion was a horrendous death by torture, meant to terrorize peoples. So how can we celebrate the exaltation of an instrument of torture?

But in the light of our faith we can exalt the Cross, if we begin to fathom its deeper meaning. The Cross is a sign of death -- but also a promise of life.

In today's Gospel, Jesus tells us that the "Son of Man will be lifted up, so that all who believe in Him may have eternal life." The Greek verb used has two meanings -- to lift up physically and to exalt. The Son of Man is lifted up physically on the Cross and is raised up from the dead.

And so, when we look upon the Cross with faith, we see God's love for the world -- a love that led the Son of God to die and be raised up so that we may have life.

Strange. But is it any stranger than the story in the Book of Numbers? The people who looked on the image of the serpent, the cause of their suffering, were healed.

All this is strange because we as a people do not like to look on suffering and death. We consider it morbid. It troubles us to see the starving child in Liberia or Iraq, to hear of the deaths of civilians in Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, to sit at the side of a dying father or friend.

And so, if we are uncomfortable with these sights, the sight of the cross should really make us squirm. But we have domesticated the cross. We have forgotten that it was the electric chair of its day.

Yet our faith tells us that gazing on the Cross gives us life; confronting the evil of death can lead us to life. For gazing on the Cross we recall God's love for us. And we recall his promise: -- if we die with Him, we shall be raised with Him.

This weekend infants will be baptized at the 10:30 Mass. We will see them being plunged into the waters of baptism, sharing in the Paschal mystery of Jesus -- dying and rising to new life. Their baptism is a sign for us of the mystery of the Cross and of life.

To look on the cross and embrace the message of God's love expressed enables us to see the suffering and death around us and respond in solidarity and hope.

What does this mean for us? The reading from Paul's letter to the Philippians holds the answer. This ancient hymn is not just about Jesus; it is about who we are called to be. Paul, in the verse before the passage which we just heard, calls us "to have the same mindset as Jesus had."

And what is this mindset?

Jesus didn't exploit his divinity. He humbled himself. He emptied himself. He stooped down and shared our human condition. We do not have a God who rescues us from afar -- but a God who shares in the muck and mire of our lives. God is in our midst.

Even more, we have a God who is not afraid to become one of the wretched of the earth. He looks at our suffering and does not turn away but empties himself to share in the world's pain, becoming a slave, living and dying as a poor man.

Ultimately, this meant that Jesus was obedient unto death. He was open enough to the will of the Father to accept the Cross.

But acceptance of the Cross is not a giving in to injustice or suffering.

The cross for Jesus was not just any old suffering -- a toothache, a bad day at the office, a failed test, a lost football game. It was the result of a life lived in obedience, in openness to God and to God's Kingdom, to a life of healing and solidarity with the despised of the earth.

As Richard Rohr, OFM, has written, "The cross is the suffering that comes when we make choices for the Kingdom."

Making choices for the kingdom of God means that we begin to live our lives in a different way -- that we follow Jesus in his way of identification with the suffering and the poor, his preference for the marginalized, his choice of downward mobility.

But the crucifixion, though central to our discipleship, is not the final word.

As Paul writes, Jesus is exalted. He is named Lord; in Him the universe has been reclaimed for God's sovereignty and glory, not by displays of power and might, but by a life of slavery, relinquishment, obedience.

What does that mean for us?

As Christ has come in solidarity with us in our suffering, so we are called to be in solidarity with those who suffer, to empty our selves, to be signs of God's compassion.

By our solidarity with the poor, our sharing the sufferings of others, our joining others in the struggle for justice, we let God's Kingdom become present even today in our world.

I think much of what I am trying to share can be summed up in this story:

Once upon a time a man came to a rabbi with this question: "Rabbi, it is written that once we could see the face of God. Why can't we do that anymore? What happened to us that we can no longer reach that high to see the face of God?"

The rabbi was very old. He had seen so much in his life. He closed his eyes, running his hand through his white beard, and sighed heartily. "My son, this is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad it is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face to face."

(in Megan McKenna, Christ All Merciful [Orbis, 2002], p. 9)

Let us live, then, stopping low, in solidarity and hope, in our brokenness and with all the broken people of this world -- just as Christ Jesus has stooped low and gives us hope.

Then, one with Christ and with all the poor and suffering of the world, we shall begin to experience eternal life -- not just in the future, but even now. Then we shall be signs of the Kingdom to a world that is broken and torn. Then the Cross can really be exalted.

Solidarity and hope

"Against the background of the history of human injustice and suffering, the suffering God is the most productive and critical symbol for it cannot be uttered without human beings hearing the challenge to solidarity and hope."
Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., She Who Is

"In Christ human suffering and pain have already been accepted and suffered, in him our broken humanity has been reconciled and led into the intimacy of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Our action, therefore, must be understood as a discipline in which we make visible what has already been accomplished."
Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, Henri Nouwen, Compassion, p. 122

" those whose daily life is suffering and death, only a suffering God on the cross can give meaning to the absurdities of life."
Virgil Elizondo, Galilean Journey, p. 125)