The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross highlights a critical distinction that must be proclaimed and lived out in the life of every Christian. Sufferings and hardships are a part of every human pilgrimage, but making the choice between having a cross and exalting it will determine the trajectory of its redemptive nature in our lives and its sanctifying impact on the world.
Weak and failed leadership in the Church and government. Abysmal Sunday Mass attendance numbers. Rapidly failing and closing Catholic schools. An overall violent rejection by the culture of standard traditional truths proclaimed by Christ. A major temptation can be to either grow numb to the turmoil of the times or become so enraged over them that they consume our zeal for souls.
Numbness is dangerous because it waters the soil for a callousness towards those with whom we disagree or who might even be, objectively speaking, in the wrong. A callous Christian is no Christian at all. Jesus is awfully clear that in order to follow Him we must bear our own crosses, in our own lives, and according to our own situations (Lk. 14:27). Valid disagreements over liturgy, theology or even clearly revealed truths of the faith must be fought for, but they also grant us the opportunity to become more aware of Golgotha.
A growing infatuation with the difficulties we have to carry is also dangerous. Consumption over the darkness in our age, even for the sake of desiring to salvage that age, leads to a growing bitterness that often becomes self-serving and self-aggrandizing. We can unite our sufferings to Christ’s by growing more in charity and less in rage, more in a desire to unite souls to the Father and less in an urge to convince people to simply be on our side.
All of that to say that suffering well does not mean we neglect the truth. From the prism of a worldly institution, the Church is in decline and is being steered by some who have bad intentions and many who are, simply put, not up for the task. For most faithful and practicing Catholics, this is our cross to bear. We must watch this, endure this, and exalt this hardship through a more acute attentiveness to the fact that the cross is the most perfect revelation of Who God is.
Exalting our crosses, or “offering it up” as the phrase goes, is not empty sentimentality. Crosses only need to be lifted after we have fallen. Jesus falls three times on His way to Calvary, but what defines Him is not mere resilience in the midst of suffering but a tender and strong grasping of that suffering. We too must embrace whatever makes up the wood of our cross. Not because God loves to see us struggle, but because He desires to transform our suffering.
The path forward, towards the Lord, is paved with sanctified and practical ways of exalting our crosses. Our Lord says of His cross, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14). Here He shows that healing, peace, and salvation come when crosses are lifted high and even adored. When the Israelites are in the desert and being bitten and killed by snakes, it is the eye’s look towards the mounted saraph that saves and heals (Numbers 21:9). Our role is to also look at and face what is “killing us” in order for salvation and healing to come to our broken world.
The psalmist recalls how the people were lying to God, “flattering” Him with their speech, and not keeping their covenant promise with the Lord. Despite these atrocities, “God, being merciful, forgave their sins and destroyed them not” (Psalm 78:38). We know, all too well, about the lying and flattering speech towards God in the world and in the Church. We must call it out and we must be cognizant of it. However, God resides in the only position that can fully comprehend if it is justice or mercy that should be shown. If He is merciful then we must also show mercy.
In the Epistle for the feast St. Paul tells us that God “greatly exalted” Christ because He “emptied himself” and took on flesh and human sin (Philippians 2:7-9). It was in the divine Son’s embrace of the smut and darkness of human nature that He redeemed mankind. How can we be more radically emptied out? Our exaltation, along with Christ’s, only comes after much self-denial and pain even though these hardships were laid on our shoulders without our choosing.
Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the purpose of the exalting and lifting is “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). Crosses are transformative, not just spiritually but also practically. If the salvation of souls is our highest priority then we must follow the roadmap of our Savior.
The infinite abundance of the love of our God is found in the fact that He did not simply bear our filth, put up with us, or save us. “God so loved” us that He desired to lift high and exalt the evil and suffering that was suffocating the human condition. If we are to be like Him and be perfect, then we must also not just carry, but exalt, the crosses being laid on our shoulders. Only then will we truly be his disciples and only then will we be counted among the blessed who emptied ourselves, exalted our crosses, and renewed the face of the earth.
Photo: Vienna, Austria by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash.
Thomas Griffin teaches theology at a Catholic high school on Long Island. Follow his latest content at EmptyTombProject.org.