Chicago priest and theologian Robert Barron speaks of what he calls a “beige” Catholicism. This is how he describes the Church during the years following the second Vatican Council. It was a time, he says, when “Christianity’s distinctive qualities and bright colors tended to be muted and its rough edges smoothed, while points of contact and continuity with non-Christian and secular realms were consistently brought into the light and celebrated.” Now, to be fair, Vatican II did indeed rightly bring to light the points of contact we have with our protestant brothers and sisters, and even our non-Christian friends. We do, in fact, have some things in common. But the downside of this emphasis was this kind of “beige” or blasé religion which challenged no one. “As a result,” Barron says, “the Christianity into which I was initiated was relatively bland and domesticated, easy to grasp and unthreatening.
So what we were left with was a Catholicism in which one could come and go, there were no demands made of anyone so that they didn’t feel bad, and everyone was welcome to gather around and sing “Kumbaya.” And there may be a time and a place for all that, but it’s not what our religion is ultimately about.
And so we have today this relatively strange feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, sometimes called the Triumph of the Cross. This feast enters into our Liturgical year and rips us from our complacency to gaze on the awful, disfigured body of our Lord, writhing in pain, nailed to the cross. There is nothing beige about this moment. We are forced to look at this horrible scene and try to figure out how it can ever be glorious. What is exultant or triumphant about such a horrible, painful, humiliating death?
Now, to be fair, we have looked at the cross so many times in our lives that it may no longer be shocking to us. But in order to recapture the significance of this feast, indeed in order to recapture the significance of our faith, we must look once again at the cross and be repulsed. The book of Lamentations is a wonderful invitation to the cross: “Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me when the LORD afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.” (Lamentations 1:12) If the thought of our God nailed to a cross and suffering an agony that can only be relieved by death doesn’t evoke strong feelings in us, then we cannot possibly ever come to a true acceptance of our faith.
What we should see on that cross is that our faith is not so much about our quest for God as much as it is about God’s relentless quest for us. As Fr. Barron says, his quest for us is a quest even to the point of death. And that’s the triumph we see on that horrible cross. The truth is that our God simply loves us too much to let sin and death have any kind of permanent hold on us. So he sent his only Son into our world to walk among us, to live our life and bear our temptations and frustrations, and to die our death in the most horrible and shocking way possible so that we could be relieved of the burden of our sins and come at last to everlasting life.
That’s the message of today’s Gospel. That one verse, John 3:16, which we see on placards and posters at so many sporting events, has been called the “Gospel in miniature.” “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” And sadly, we can get pretty bland about that too. We can accept the fact that our believing brings us to eternal life to the point that we never give it a second thought. But the cross makes that kind of beige faith impossible. It shows us that the eternal life of our expectation came at a price; a horrible, painful, humiliating price.
We are an Easter people who dwell, as well we should, on the Resurrection of our Lord. But we must not ever forget that the Resurrection would never have been possible without the Cross. Without the Resurrection, the cross is definitely that awful reminder of a meaningless death. But without the Cross, the Resurrection would never be the joyful relief that it is. We are never a Church that is about just one thing. We are always about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Which is good news for us because, as I’m sure you can tell me, every day of our lives isn’t Easter Sunday. We experience all sorts of death: the very real death of a loved one, failures of all sorts, sickness and infirmity, broken relationships, disappointments and frustrations – all of these are deaths that we must suffer at one point or another in our life. No life is untouched by hardship at some point. This feast, though, reminds us that God’s love can embrace all of that death, take it to the cross and rise up over it. Our life’s pain is not the end for any of us; those who believe in Christ can have eternal life, as John the evangelist eagerly reminds us today.
And so, as much painful as it is to look with horror on the cross today, our eyes of faith can also see great beauty, exaltation and triumph. But we have to see both things. If we cannot bear to walk through the pain of the Cross, we’ll never get to the joy of the Resurrection – it’s both or nothing.
So this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has us seeing anything but beige. Instead we see the black darkness of sin and death, the red blood of Christ shed for that sin, and the gold glory of the Resurrection. This feast must find us bending the knee at the cross of Christ, and proclaiming with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord – Lord of our pain and Lord of our triumph – to the glory of God the Father.