Saturday, September 13, 2014

HOMILY - Exaltation of the Holy Cross (2014)

You have probably heard of these phrases: The ball is in your court. Think outside the box. Every cloud has a silver lining. These and thousands more like them are clichés or expressions used to convey a thought or idea. However, they are also expressions that have likely lost their effectiveness through over-usage. I am very sensitive to using clichés in my ministry, especially when an individual has recently experienced some type of loss, hardship or pain. It would be easy for me to use common clichés like “just keep the faith,” or “just offer it up,” or “when God closes a door, He opens a window,” or “the Lord never gives you more than you can handle,” especially when I don’t know what to say, let alone when I lack the words to explain why something difficult or even tragic has happened. However true these expressions may be, they may often end up sounding empty or cold. For me at least, one phrase comes off sounding more cliché that any other – and that phrase is “to carry your cross” and its many variations. However, today’s Feast – the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – changes the phrase – to carry your cross – from cliché to a wonderful and beautiful expression of faith, hope and trust! Celebrated annually on September 14, the roots of this Feast date back to the Fourth century with the discovery of the actual Cross carried by Jesus and the practice of venerating the Cross as something more than just an instrument of execution. For us Christians, the Cross points to two important truths about our faith. First, that Jesus’ death on the Cross matters. As Jesus himself states to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel: “…[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert [as we read in today’s first reading], so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So the Cross is about a loving Creator and Father willing to give up everything to bring us back into relationship with Him: to heal us and to give us life – and not just for a moment, or a day, or a week or a month, or a year, or even for our earthly lives, but for eternity. As I like to think about it, Jesus’ death on the Cross is the once and forever payment for the debt we created by our sin – in the past, the present and in the future. Even if we had the right currency to pay this debt, which we don’t, we could never have enough of it to fully pay the debt created by our sin and the sin of others. Christ’s death on the Cross accomplishes what we could never do for ourselves and made possible the eternal joy and peace we were made to experience and for which we long for in our hearts more than anything else. This is reason enough for us to raise up or exalt the Cross, to hold in the highest regard and with great dignity and nobility, but there is more: The second important truth about the Cross is that it teaches us how to live our life. The full expression – to carry your cross – comes from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus says: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” So often we understand this cross to mean that we must endure some specific problem or difficulty such as a terminal illness, family or job crisis, addiction or some situation that is extremely painful. However, the cross that Jesus refers to is the cross that we bear by living and proclaiming the Christian way of life in the midst of or despite an illness or addiction or crisis or loss or failure. We are NOT limited or defined by these experiences, but rather by how well we – by our actions and words – love. And how do we love? By following Christ. By doing exactly what St. Paul in today’s second reading reminds us that Jesus did: He did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He became obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross. And because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that every knee should bend! So when we say to someone: carry their cross when battling an illness or struggling with some crisis (or that person’s loved one watching this happen), we are saying to them: to seek humility (to empty one self of pride, self-pity, embarrassment, anger or frustration, and disappointment); to trust God and his plan for us – to be obedient God’s laws and will for us; and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in all things. And if we do this, God will – we pray – exalt us: to lift us from death to life, from darkness to light, from illness to health, from anxiety to peace, from persecution to freedom, from sorrow to joy. I get that this – seeking humility and obedience – is hard; I know! But our God is always ready to give us the grace we need – the help, the wisdom, the courage, the patience, whatever it is that we need to deny our self, take up our cross and follow Him. Yes, saying “carry your cross” will probably always sound cliché. But, I say risk sounding cliché, knowing that the Cross has not lost its effectiveness and it will never be over-used, because it leads us to eternal life.