The most recognizable emblem of Christianity is indeed the Cross. Church steeples, Catholic sanctuaries, and parish graveyards testify to Calvary’s solemn instrument of torture. The Cross holds a dominant spot in Catholic classrooms and a re-assuring location in Catholic hospitals. The Cross dangles from the rosary beads of the pious and from the tattooed necks of irreverent rock stars. The Sign of the Cross begins and concludes every Catholic sacramental celebration and every Catholic prayer service. The hasty Sign of the Cross is every believer’s automatic response to disturbing and as well as to gratifying news.
The universality of the tragic Cross throughout the Christian world would almost seem to indicate that nothing celebratory or even pleasant occurred during the public life of Jesus Christ. The significance of Easter and the Ascension seems quickly to have faded from the disciples’ recollections. The attempt of the crowd to make Jesus a king after the multiplication of the loaves apparently has slipped from the apostles’ memory. Peter, James and John must certainly have shared the splendid event of the Transfiguration with their fellow believers. But to no avail?
The raising of Lazarus which turned so many pious Jews toward Christ and so many religious leaders away from Christ was a clearly memorable occurrence. Yet none of these celebratory events captured the aura and the mystique of Christ’s Passion and Death, vividly memorialized down through the ages through icons and images, medals and memorials of the Savior’s Cross.
Perhaps Jesus Christ himself should be blamed when splendid and superlative events in his public life bow to that sad and sorrowful episode that culminated on Golgatha’s crest. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel from St. John account, Jesus’ response to his betrayal by the apostle Judas indicates the Master’s true assessment of his earthy sojourn. St. John writes: “When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once (Jn 13:31-33a).” Jesus clearly knew that his real mission, his true worth, his deepest significance, was signaled best of all by his perseverance through this treacherous betrayal and ensuing personal hardships rather than by any glorious moment that evoked praise and applause.
By the time of his writing a couple of decades later, St. Paul had come to the same conclusion. The Apostle instructed the people of Antioch: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:24).” St. Paul knew that a cross or many crosses preceded a believer’s arrival into eternal fulfillment. Accepting the cross rather than wearing the crown is the measure of a believer’s true worth before God.
St. John much later would describe the New Jerusalem, the heavenly kingdom, precisely in terms of being delivered from all the treachery and hardship that mark earthly life even for believers: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away (Rev.21:5).” But, in the meantime, personal betrayal as experienced by Jesus and challenges in the apostolate as experienced by St. Paul are the lot of every believing Christian. These inevitable trials should not lead the believer to question the providence of God but rather to cling ever more effectively to God’s inscrutable but meritorious plan for his believing community. Challenges are meant to test the Christian’s inner resolve, not to trip up the believer on his or her pilgrim way.
“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world!” The antiphon recited regularly during the Stations of the Cross, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, continues the thought of Christ, St. Paul and St. John into the devotional life of the later Church. Good Friday must proceed Easter Sunday in the life of each believer just as Calvary’s hill preceded the empty garden tomb during Jesus’ earthly life. “Now is the Son of Man glorified (Jn 13:31)!” Jesus cries out at the moment of personal betrayal. Now his true personality, his inner meaning, the depth of his relationship with the Father, would be publically displayed on Golgotha for all to see. “Truly this man was a son of God (Mk.15:14)!,” the Roman centurion cried out at the last moment.
Indeed Jesus had proven himself. And now each Christian believer must prove him or herself. The Cross waits; but then happily, a resurrected life waits as well.
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