The Triumph of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

Bishop Robert Barron tells about an interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Buddhists. At one point, one of the Buddhists said to him, “Why is that obscene image on every wall in your buildings?” He was, of course, referring to the Crucifix. The Buddhist explained that it would be considered a mockery in his religion to venerate the very thing that killed their leader. The truth is, of course, that it is obscene. It is strange, and Barron wrote a whole book about it called The Strangest Way.

And we all must have thought about this at one time or another. Why is it that God could only accomplish the salvation of the world through the horrible, brutal, and lonely death of his Son? That question goes right to the root of our faith. We know that we had been alienated from God, separated by a vast chasm of sin and death. But into this obscene world, Jesus becomes incarnate; he is born right into the midst of all that sin and death. He walks among us, and goes through all of the sorrows and pains of life and death right with along with us. If death has been the obscenity that has kept us from God, then God was going to use that very thing to bring us back. Jesus comes into our world and dies our death because God wants us to know that there is no place we can go, no experience we can ever have that is outside of God’s reach.

Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, also called the Triumph of the Cross, was celebrated very early in the Church’s history. In the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman. The cross immediately became an object of veneration.

About this great feast, St. Andrew of Crete wrote: “Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.”

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these things that assail us in this life have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter

Today’s readings

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

We English-speakers have just one word for time, but other languages have more; those languages recognize the different kinds of time.  Most notably for us, because it is reflected in the New Testament, the Greek language has two kinds of time: chronos and kairos.  Chronos is the kind of time you can measure.  It’s a day or a week or even the timeline of a project at work.  Kairos on the other hand can be thought of as quality time: a summer afternoon spent with your family, a visit to a sick loved one, or a chance encounter with an old friend.  This kind of time is mostly unmeasurable, and in some sense kairos is always “now.”

It’s important to keep these kinds of time in mind because the world sometimes sees time in a rather cynical way.   But that’s not how our God sees time.  Did you hear what we prayed at the very beginning of tonight’s vigil?  Listen again: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, all time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age and for ever.  Amen.”  And these are important, even brave words for us to offer on this most holy night.  Tonight’s vigil proclaims that all time is holy, sanctified by our God who has walked with us through our yesterdays, remains with us today, and forges on with us toward our tomorrows.  There is not a single moment of our life, not a single moment of our history that is not holy because every moment has been, is now, and always will be imbued with the presence of our God who is holiness itself.  That’s what we gather to celebrate on this most holy night.

But as we have walked through Lent, and especially through this Holy Week, there may even be a temptation, I think, to come to think that the world, and especially human history, was a creative experiment that went horribly wrong, that God sent his Son to clean up the mess only to have him killed for it, and then in a last move of desperation raised him up out of the grave.  But we know that’s not how this works.  Salvation was not some kind of dumb luck or happy accident.  The salvation of the world had been part of God’s creative plan all along.  Humanity, given the grace of free will had, and has, certainly gone astray.  But God did not create us simply to follow our own devices and end up in hell.  He created us for himself, and so sent his Son Jesus to walk our walk, to die our death, and to rise up over it all in the everlasting promise of eternal life.  That’s what we celebrate on this most holy of all nights.

There is a cynical view of our world that would have us believe that everything is futile and that the only possible way to endure this world is to cultivate a kind of cynical apathy that divorces us from our God, our loved ones, our communities and our world.  If we don’t get involved and invested, if we don’t love with abandon, we aren’t likely to get hurt.  We are conditioned to believe that time, and life itself, is meaningless, that there is nothing worth living for, and certainly nothing worth dying for.  But tonight’s vigil debunks all of that.  Tonight we are assured by our God that our present is no less redeemable than was our past, nor is it any less filled with promise than is our future.

This wonderful three-day Liturgy that we call the Sacred Paschal Triduum began on Thursday night.  On that night we sang “Lift High the Cross,” which is reminiscent of the proper entrance antiphon that the Church gives us for the Liturgy of these holy days:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Should there be any doubt about the glory of the Cross, these words, which are borrowed from the letter to the Galatians, remind us that there is nothing on earth that is so ponderous that our God can’t redeem it.  There is no darkness that our Lord’s Paschal Mystery can’t brighten.  There is no pain or sadness that our Lord hasn’t taken on himself and defeated, once and for all, on this most holy of all nights.

Tonight we have heard stories of our salvation, God’s saving action in the world throughout all time.  Each of our readings has been a stop in the history of God’s love for us.  God’s plan for salvation, and his sanctification of time, began back at the beginning of it all.  Each of the days was hallowed with precious creation, and all of it was created and pronounced good.  Then Abraham’s faithfulness and righteousness earned us a future as bright as a zillion twinkling stars.  Later, as Moses and the Israelites stood trapped by the waters of the Red Sea, God’s providence made a way for them and cut off their pursuers, making the future safe for those God calls his own.  The prophet Isaiah calls us to seek the Lord while he may be found, not spending our lives on things that fail to satisfy, but investing in our relationship with God that gives us everything.  The prophet Ezekiel foretells the re-creation all humanity will experience as they come to know Christ and are filled with the Spirit.  Saint Paul rejoices in the baptism that has washed away the stains of sin as we have died and risen with Christ, and has brought us into a new life that leads ultimately to God’s kingdom.  And finally, our Gospel tonight tells us not to be afraid, to go forth into the Galilee of our future and expect to see the Risen Lord.

We Christians have been spared the necessity and sadness of a cynical view of the world and its people.  Our gift has been and always is the promise that Jesus Christ is with us forever, even until the end of the world.  And so, just as God sanctified all of time through his interventions of salvation, so too has he sanctified our lives through the interventions of Sacrament.  We are a sacramental people, purified and reborn in baptism, fed and strengthened in the Eucharist, and in Confirmation, set on fire to burn brightly and light up our world with the glory of God’s presence.  Tonight we recall these three Sacraments of Initiation and recommit ourselves to the promises of our baptism.  Also, for the first time since Thursday, we have the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist together, drawing strength from the food our God provides.

These days of Lent have been a sanctifying journey for all of us, as we have walked the Stations of the Cross together, fasted together, celebrated the sacraments, taken part in our Project Passion Prayer experience, done works of service, and so much more.  Christ has definitely sanctified this Lenten time for all of us, and has now brought us to the fullness of this hour, when he rises over sin and death to bring us all to the promise of life eternal.

And it is this very night that cleanses our world from all the stains of sin and death and lights up the darkness.  The Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation that Deacon Ryan sang when we entered Church tonight, tells us: “This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.  The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”  This is a most powerful night!  What a gift this night is, not just to us gathered here in this church, not just to all the Catholics gathered together throughout the world on this holy night, but to all people in every time and place.  Our world needs the light and our time needs the presence of Christ, and our history needs salvation.  Blessed be God who never leaves his people without the great hope of his abiding presence!

And so, having come through this hour to be sanctified in this vigil, we will shortly be sent forth to help sanctify our own time and place.  Brightened by this beautiful vigil, we now become a flame to light up our darkened world.  That is our ministry in the world.  That is our call as believers.  That is our vocation as disciples.  “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star.  The one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns forever and ever.  Amen.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings
“When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM…”

Just as the saraph serpent was lifted up on a pole in the desert for the people to see, and thus live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world.  In these late Lenten days, the Church is looking to the Cross, looking toward Jerusalem, knowing that the hour of the Lord, in which he would pay the dear price of our salvation, is near at hand.

With hearts filled with gratitude, we come to this Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on our Lord lifted up for us, who pours himself out for us again and still.  When we see him lifted up, we remember that he is “I AM,” our crucified and risen Lord, and whenever we look to him, we are saved from all that ails us, from our sins and brokenness, and we ourselves are lifted up to eternal life.

Our challenge in these late Lenten days is to be that icon of the Cross, like the saraph serpent, to whom people can look and find healing and salvation. We have to be the image of Christ crucified so that the world can become whole.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night: The Triumph of the Cross

Tonight’s readings

“You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28). I love that last line from the last of the Old Testament readings we heard tonight. There is a covenant, there has always been a covenant, there always will be a covenant. God created us in love, and he loves us first and best. No matter where we may wander; no matter how far from the covenant we may stray, God still keeps it forever. We will always be his people and he will always be our God. If I had to pick a line that sums up what we’re here for tonight, that would be it.

Over the past couple of days, as we have observed this Sacred Paschal Triduum, which comes to its denouement tonight in this Vigil of vigils, I have reflected on the Cross. I did that because it is the Cross that Holy Mother Church sets before us during the Triduum, from the lines of the Entrance Antiphon way back on Holy Thursday Evening:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
i
n whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

On Thursday, I reflected on the scandal of the Cross, rejecting the idea that going to the Cross made our God any less, and instead acknowledging that the real scandal was the reason he went there, which was for my sins. Yesterday, on Good Friday, I reflected on the Way of the Cross, noting that our Savior willingly took up the Cross so that you and I might have life, and I reflected on the reality of our own little crosses and the way that we disciples have to travel. Tonight, I would like to conclude that reflection on the Holy Cross, which is our glory, by celebrating the Triumph of the Cross. We actually celebrate that on September the 14th each year, but the reason for its Exaltation is what we come to experience tonight.

It might seem a little odd to reflect on the Cross – triumph or not – on this holy night. I mean, surely we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.

But we disciples dare not let it be so. Because certainly we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we don’t get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we can’t have salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.

And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ.

And then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare our Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The Cross, that instrument of horror, has triumphed over every darkness thrown at it, and we can do – should do – no less than praise our God!

We have journeyed with our Jesus for three days now. We ate with him, we prayed through the night with him, some of us at seven churches. We saw him walk the way of the Cross and tearfully recalled his crucifixion. We reverenced the Cross, joining our own crosses to his. Now we’ve stayed up all night and shared the stories of our salvation, with eager excitement at the ways God has kept that covenant through the ages. A roaring fire shattered the darkness, and a candle was lit to mingle with the lights of heaven. Then grace had its defining moment as Christ shattered the prison-bars of death and rose triumphant from the underworld.

Our birth would have meant nothing had we not been redeemed. If we were born only to live and die for this short span of time, how horrible that would have been. But thanks be to God, the sin of Adam was destroyed completely by the death of Christ! The Cross has triumphed and we are made new! Dazzling is this night for us, and full of gladness! Because our Lord is risen, our hope of eternity has dawned, and there is no darkness which can blot it out. We will always be God’s people, and he will always be our God!

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Holy Thursday: The Scandal of the Cross

Today’s readings

I love what Jesus says to Peter after Peter initially refuses to have his feet washed. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” I kind of feel like that’s what could be said about the entirety of our faith. What we are taught very rarely makes sense at the first presentation, but later, when we have eyes opened up by the Resurrection, well, then things start to fall into place.

So I want to start my reflection on these three holy days, this Sacred Paschal Triduum, with the incredibly scandalous idea that is the Holy Cross. The Church would have us do so, too, for She provides just one entrance antiphon for these three days, and that comes at the beginning of today’s Mass, and it says:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

This antiphon is adapted from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14) in which he spends most of the letter chastising the community – even to the point of calling them “stupid” (3:1) – for taking their eyes off Jesus and the Gospel and everything that Saint Paul has taught them, and instead looking back to the Jewish law and all its artificial marks of righteousness. But we dare not condemn them so quickly. Because, quite frankly, we have to understand their faltering faith in light of our own.

For us, now removed a couple of thousand years past the Crucifixion of our Lord, the Cross seems pretty standard – it almost doesn’t even phase us any more. We see it in church, we probably have one or more in our homes, and we might even wear one around our neck pretty often. And so, I think, the Cross may have lost some of its very important impact: an impact Jesus’ disciples certainly experienced as they fled in fear. It’s an impact Saint Paul’s Church in Galatia would have experienced too, and perhaps explained their trying to find justification in other ways.

Because the cross was terrifying. And not only that, the cross was scandalous. It was saved for the dregs of society, for the worst of the worst. For those who were a problem for society. It was saved for the likes of Barabbas, for heaven’s sake! And the unrepentant thief. And yet, that is where our Lord went at the end of his life on earth. Nobody in Jesus’ day would have been inspired by this awful display. Saint Paul acknowledges as much in his first letter to the Corinthians when he says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23).

But if people in that day missed the importance of Jesus embracing and dying on the cross, then they missed his entire message too. Because it was every bit as scandalous that Jesus ate with sinners and touched lepers. Just as scandalous as the cross was his getting up at supper and taking off his outer garments, tying a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of the disciples. That was the job of a servant, but then he did come to serve not to be served. That was the job of a slave, but then he did come to set us free from our ancient sinfulness.

As scandalous as the Cross was for the early Church, it is also deeply problematic for the Church today. Because we live in a society that values freedom, convenience, and bright shiny happiness – none of which, I dare say, you’ll find on the Cross. In our society, we might boast that there is a pill for almost every ailment, even if they come with a horrifying list of side-effects. In our society, we have convenience down to a science: we eat fast food, we bank and shop online and delight in free overnight shipping, we lose our minds in the line at the DMV. In our society, we do our best to spin every situation into some kind of false happiness, with painted smiles and happy music and all kinds of glitzy advertising.

We’re more than happy to have a Resurrection, thank you, but the Cross … well that’s just not something we’re open to embracing. And the problem with that is that living the Gospel requires that we take up our own crosses and follow our Lord (Matthew 16:24). So our aversion to the Cross, both in the ancient Church and now, is a real obstacle to our life of faith, a real obstacle to our eternity.

The cause of the obstacle, I would assert – at least in my own spiritual life – is that on the Cross, we see our own sins. The real scandalous part of the Cross for us is that our Savior had to go there to free us from our sins. What makes us turn our heads away and avert our gaze is that we can’t bear to see that even our smallest sins have such horrible, scandalous consequences. The real scandal of the Cross is that the Word made flesh had to give up his own life in such a terrible death in order that I might live.

What on earth are we supposed to do with that? How do we live with the fact that God’s only begotten Son died for us? Well, he tells us in today’s Gospel. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” And he’s not just talking about washing feet, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Whatever he’s done for us, we’re supposed to do for others. If he’s forgiven us much, then we should never stop forgiving. If he has served us, then we have to serve others. If he has laid down our life for us, then we better do the same for the people in our lives. Anything less is an offense against the Holy Cross.

As we gather on this Holy Thursday night, we know that the washing of the feet is a mere foreshadowing of the Cross. Jesus came to give himself completely so that we might have life. He washes feet, cleansing the disciples of their sins and making them fit for service. He offers his Body and Blood to be the food that sustains us on our journey. And he offers us our own crosses that we might have a share in his own, leading us onward to eternal life.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

In a lot of ways, this is a strange feast we are celebrating today. Think about it. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which in Jesus’ day would have been as big an oxymoron as one could possibly imagine. It’s like us saying that we are going to celebrate the exaltation of a lethal injection chamber. There is nothing exalted about an instrument of execution: it’s tortuous, humiliating, and as dark as one can get.

So to get from that to where we are now is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle, of course, of the highest order! God used this instrument of punishment to remit the punishment we deserved for our sins. God used the epitome of darkness to bathe the world in unfathomable light.

And he didn’t have to. The cross is what we deserved for our many sins. Today’s first reading gives us just a glimpse into the problem. The Israelites, fresh from deliverance from slavery in Egypt, are making their way through the desert. Along the way, they pause to complain that God’s food, which he provided in the desert, wasn’t good enough for them. They had chosen slavery over deliverance; food that perishes over food that endures unto eternal life.

But we’re there too, right? We often choose the wrong kind of food, get off the path, and choose slavery to our vices and sins over new life in Christ. In fact it was because of all that that Jesus came to us in the first place. God noticed our brokenness and would not let us remain dead in sin. So to put an end to that cycle of sin and death, he sent his only Son to us to die on the cross, paying the price for our sins. But that death may no longer have power over us, he raised him up, cheating the cross and the evil one of their power, and exalting the Holy Cross to the instrument not of our death, but of our salvation.

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

During this Triduum journey, I have been reflecting in my homilies on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve talked about the fact that this is not a popular thing to do because we as a society are not big on suffering. If we put a sign out on Chicago Avenue that said, “Come suffer with us,” I’m pretty sure we’d be all alone here in church! We certainly do suffer in this life, but no one wants it – as well we shouldn’t. The problem is that we tend to gloss over it, not acknowledge it, be embarrassed by it. Suffering becomes the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, and that’s too bad, really.

Certainly it seems odd that I would continue to talk about the Cross on this holy night. I mean, we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.

But we can’t, right? If we’ve prayed well this Lent and particularly in these Triduum days, we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we don’t get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we can’t have salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.

And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. The veil of the temple was torn in two, there was a tremor in the earth, and an eclipse of the sun. And no wonder, the light of the Messiah had been extinguished on the Cross.

Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ.

But then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare our Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The instrument of horror has become the Cross of glory, and we can do no less than praise our God!

Saint John Damascene reflected on this salvific reality. He writes, “By nothing else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low: The sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world, even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all these things have been set aright…It is a seal that the destroyer may not strike us, a raising up of those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for soul and body, a deflector of all evils, a cause of all goods, a destruction of sin, a plant of resurrection, and a tree of eternal life.”

It’s so important that we enter into Lent and the Triduum every year. Not just because we need to be called back from our sinfulness to the path of life – yes, there is that, but it’s not primary here. What is so important is that we see that the Cross is our path too. In this life we will have trouble: our Savior promises us that. But the Cross is what sees him overcome the world and all the suffering it brings us. We will indeed suffer in this life, but thanks be to God, if we join ourselves to him, if we take up our own crosses with faithfulness, then we can merit a share in our Lord’s resurrection, that reality that fulfills all of salvation history that we’ve heard in tonight’s readings.

In these Triduum days, we have seen the Cross call us to service, we’ve seen it stand for our suffering, and tonight we’ve seen it help us on the way to salvation. The cross is brutal and ugly and harsh. But it’s also beautiful, if we have eyes to see it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Just as the saraph serpent was lifted up on a pole in the desert for the people to see, and thus live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world.  In these late Lenten days, as we look upon the cross, either here in church or in our homes, our hearts surely must be stirred to remember the painful price our Lord paid for our salvation.  With hearts filled with gratitude, we come to this Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on our Lord lifted up for us, who pours himself out for us again and still.  When we see him lifted up, we remember that he is “I AM,” our crucified and risen Lord, and whenever we look to him, we are saved from all that ails us, from our sins and brokenness, and we ourselves are lifted up to eternal life.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

I’ve always felt that the celebration of Palm Sunday was a little strange.  We start out on a seemingly triumphant note.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of the center of the Jewish religion, the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs.  Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.”  This is it, isn’t it?  It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah to deliver them from foreign oppression.

Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer.  Instead, he preached forgiveness and healed people from the inside out.  He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day.  He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins.  It wasn’t an easy message for them to hear, it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.

And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading.  Enough of this, they say, the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker.  Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas.  As for this one, well, crucify him.

Who are we going to blame for this?  Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord?  Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert?  Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire?  Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message was made clear?  Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours?  Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus?  Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong?  Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms?  Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?

And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those.  Because it’s my sins that led Jesus to the Way of the Cross.  It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God.  And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life.  And you.  He gave himself for us.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
i
n whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

That is the proper entrance antiphon, also known as the introit, for this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  It is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he says “May I never boast about anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.”  As you know, the Church considers these three days – the Sacred Triduum – as just one day, one liturgy.  When we gather for Mass tonight, and reconvene tomorrow for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and finally gather for the great Easter Vigil in the Holy Night on Saturday, it’s just one day for the church, one great Liturgy in three parts.  And the only part that has an entrance antiphon is tonight’s Mass, so the Church has chosen this text to set the tone for our celebrations for these three nights, and to draw all of them together with the cross as the focal point.

I think what the cross teaches us in these days, and what this evening’s part of the Liturgy says in particular is summed up in the Latin word, caritasCaritas is most often translated into English as either “charity” or “love.”  And, as in the case of most translations, both are inadequate.  When we think about the word “charity,” we usually think of something we do to the poor: we give to the poor, we have pity on the poor, that kind of thing.  And “love” can have a whole host of different meanings, depending on the context, and the emotion involved.  And that’s not what caritas means at all.  I think caritas is best imagined as a love that shows itself in the action of setting oneself aside, pouring oneself out, for the good of others.  It’s a love that remembers that everything is not about me, that God gives us opportunities all the time to give of ourselves on behalf of others, that we were put on this earth to love one another into heaven.

And I bring this up not just as a lesson in Latin or semantics.  I bring it up because caritas is our vocation; we were made to love deeply and to care about something outside ourselves.  We are meant to go beyond what seems expedient and comfortable and easy and to extend ourselves.

Two parts of this evening’s Liturgy show us what caritas means.  The first is what we call the mandatum: the washing of the feet.  Here, Jesus gets up from the meal, puts on a towel and begins to wash the feet of his disciples.  Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time.  In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration.  And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot.  The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey.  It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was usually supplied not by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, usually a servant or slave.  But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around himself, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.

We will reenact that Gospel vignette in a few minutes.  But I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of this particular ritual.  Not because I don’t like washing feet or don’t care to have mine washed.  It’s just that I think this particular ritual should be reenacted outside of church.  Every day, in every place where Christians are.

For example, maybe you make an effort to get home from work a little sooner to help your spouse get dinner ready or help your children with their homework.  Maybe at work you try to get in early so that you can make the first pot of coffee so that people can smell it when they come in to the office.  Or maybe after lunch you take a minute or two to wipe out the microwave so it’s not gross the next day.  If you’re a young person, perhaps you can try on occasion to do a chore without being asked, or at least not asked a second time, or even wash the dishes when it’s not your turn to do it.  Or if one of your classmates has a lot of stuff to bring to school one day, you can offer to carry some of his or her books to lighten the load.

This kind of thing costs us.  It’s not our job.  We’re entitled to be treated well too.  It’s inconvenient.  I’ve had a hard day at work – or at school.  I want to see this show on television.  I’m in the middle of reading the paper.  But caritas requires something of us – something over and above what we may be prepared to do.  But, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, he’s given us an example: as he has done, so we must do.  And not just here in church washing each other’s feet, but out there in our world, washing the feet of all those in our lives who need to be loved into heaven.

The second part of our Liturgy that illustrates caritas is one with which we are so familiar, we may most of the time let it pass us by without giving it a thought, sadly.  And that, of course, is the Eucharist.  This evening we commemorate that night when Jesus, for the very first time, shared bread and wine with his closest friends and offered the meal as his very own body and blood, poured out on behalf of the world, given that we might remember, as often as we do it, what caritas means.  This is the meal that we share here tonight, not just as a memory of something that happened in the far distant past, but instead experienced with Jesus and his disciples, and all the church of every time and place, on earth and in heaven, gathered around the same Table of the Lord, nourished by the same body, blood, soul and divinity of our Savior who poured himself out for us in the ultimate act of caritas.

We who eat this meal have to be willing to be changed by it.  Because we too must pour ourselves out for others.  We must feed them with our presence and our love and our understanding even when we would rather not.  We must help them to know Christ’s presence in their lives by the way that we serve them, in humility, giving of ourselves and asking nothing in return.  That is our vocation.

And sometimes that vocation is not an easy one.  Sometimes it feels like our efforts are unappreciated or even thwarted by others.  Sometimes we give of ourselves only to receive pain in return; or we extend ourselves only to find ourselves out on a limb with what seems like no support.  And then we question our vocation, wondering if it is all worth it, wondering if somehow we got it wrong.

Many of you know that I’ve been there, recently; you had probably felt it when you saw me or talked to me.  It was a difficult summer and fall, and I did ask God if I could leave my vocation behind.  I asked him because I knew, however difficult it was, my vocation really belongs to him (that’s true for all of us, by the way).  Right about the time I asked that question, a very good friend of mine lent me this wood carving, which sits on the shelf in my office.  It’s Jesus carrying the Cross – you know, the one we should glory in.  And when I looked at him and asked whether I could leave my vocation, he said no.  And the second time I asked him, he said no, and stop asking.  So I had my answer.  Caritas isn’t something from which one turns away.  We embrace our little crosses and journey on, knowing that Jesus carried the big Cross for our salvation.

The ultimate act of caritas will unfold tomorrow and Saturday night as we look to the cross and keep vigil for the resurrection.  Tonight it will suffice for us to hear the command to go and do likewise, pouring ourselves out for others, laying down our life for them, washing their feet and becoming Eucharist for them.  It may seem difficult to glory in the cross – it may even seem strange to say it.  But the Church makes it clear tonight: the cross is our salvation, it is caritas poured out for us, it is caritas poured out on others through us, every time we extend ourselves, lay down our lives, abandon our sense of entitlement and do what the Gospel demands of us.

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.