Re-Imagining the Church: the Triumph of the Cross 2018

For some, today will be coloured chiefly by the liturgy as we celebrate the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For others, there will be a remembrance of the death of Dante, surely among the greatest of all poets and Christian thinkers. For those who dwell in monasteries, especially those who serve as cook, there will be some more worldly concerns as we begin the winter fast. The link between all three is membership of the Church. The liturgy for this day reminds us very firmly of the central mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Dante’s vast, imaginative sweep gives expression to centuries of meditation on that same mystery, while the monastic cook ensures that we feel in our flesh something of what that mystery demands. All well and good, but for many more, if they think about the Church at all, it will be to ask what is being done about the abuse scandals in the absence of any coherent answer from the pope and bishops beyond an exhortation to prayer and penance and the promise of a synod of bishops some months hence. As some have pointed out, asking the laity to do penance for what is largely a sin of clergy and religious strikes something of a false note. Of course we recognize that we are all involved, that our membership of the Church means we have a collective responsibility, but I do not think it works out in quite the way that those outside the Church assume. If we spend too much time on what we’d like the Church to be, we shall be in danger of missing or misunderstanding what she actually is. We need to do a little re-imagining, and I think today’s feast is an encouragement to do so.

Today’s gospel ends with the words

God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved. (John 3.17)

Have we lost sight of that in our preoccupation with how we would like the Church to be? So many of the disputes within the Catholic Church tend to be an attempt to refashion the Church according to our own notions. We would like the Church to be ‘traditional’. The problem with that is that we tend to interpret the word according to our own ideas, locating the ‘perfect’ Church in a particular time and form, ignoring all the rest. Alternatively, we would like the Church to be ‘liberal’. The problem with that is that our ideas may stray quite far from the teaching of the Church, leading us into heresy of one kind or another. We forget what today’s feast and today’s gospel insist upon: the Church exists to bring us all to salvation. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, from our own experience of the Church and ask how the Church’s mission might best be accomplished in the world in which we live and why she is as she is. Her structures will not change overnight; the Truth she teaches will not change, although the way in which she presents it may (just think how much we have learned about the universe since Dante wrote of ‘the Love that moves the sun and lesser stars’!). Above all, human nature remains essentially the same. Our re-imagining of the Church must take account of all these. Perhaps what we most need at this time is humility and a willingness to let go of our own ideas. The problems we confront, from environmental pollution to Artificial Intelligence and its as yet undreamed-of ramifications, will stretch us, no doubt about that. But in the midst of it all, at the very centre of whatever worlds there are, stands the Cross, unmoving. That gives us hope. It also provides the impetus to question, to reflect, to pray.

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Exaltation of the Cross 2015

This feast marks the turn of the Benedictine year when we begin the winter fast and our preparation for Lent and Easter. It is a hinge, just as the cross itself is a hinge. Today, when our processional cross is adorned with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory, we find it easier than during Holy Week to grasp what a great victory was won on the wood of the cross. We no longer see only suffering and death but new life and hope born of Christ’s sacrifice. Can we go further and relate that to our own experience? How often have moments of failure and despair turned out to be a spring-board to something better. That does not mean that we deny or make light of them. Just as Jesus’ honesty on the cross led him to question his Father, so we must be honest in our turn. The prayer wrenched from the heart of our being is a true prayer and one that goes straight to the heart of God. Today we rejoice in Christ’s victory, the transformation of suffering and death, and we claim it for our own:

[Deus] Qui salutem humani generis in ligno crucis constituisti:
ut, unde mors oriebatur, inde vita resurgeret:
et qui in ligno vincebat, in ligno quoque vinceretur. . .

[God] you placed the salvation of the human race
on the wood of the Cross,
so that, where death arose,
life might again spring forth
and the evil one, who conquered on a tree,
might likewise on a tree be conquered . . .

(from the preface for the feast)

Note: if you are interested, I have written about this feast in most years. A search in the sidebar for ‘The Triumph of the Cross’ or ‘The Exaltation of the Cross’ will provide some entries, as will a search of our old blog, ‘Colophon’.

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The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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The Exaltation of the Cross

The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a reminder of something many good and generous people try to forget: that our salvation was wrought on the wood of the Cross. Sometimes we are so keen to race ahead to the Resurrection that we do not allow Christ’s death to register with us as it should. The terrible drying wind that blew over Calvary was the greatest torment, according to Julian of Norwich, who saw the parching of Christ’s skin and the great drops of blood falling from his brow, like raindrops from the roof-thatch after a shower of rain. For years I ate my meals beneath a large crucifix which bore the single word, Sitio, I thirst; and somehow, in my mind’s eye, the agonizing thirst for our love and the cruel dessication of Christ’s flesh became one. Only with the Resurrection would the thirst be ended, the flesh become supple again; but first there was a death to undergo, as violent and painful as any.

This year the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross coincides with Yom Kippur. There is much in that we could reflect on, but perhaps what we most need to be reminded of today is that death and dying are not meaningless nor is sin ultimately triumphant. Death comes to each of us, but none of us knows how we shall approach our last moments. I hope — I pray — for the grace of a good death, one that is a sharing in his death; but I do not presume upon it. For the rest, nothing is lost; nothing is gone for ever. Even our moments of apparent defeat can be transformed by grace into victories.  Today our processional cross will be adorned with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory, a victory won for all time on the wood of the Cross. In a world where there is so much violence and death is all too common, it is good to remember that.

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The Exaltation of the Cross

It is no accident that Pope Benedict XVI begins his visit to Lebanon on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and I trust the prayers of all people of goodwill will accompany him. That frail figure dressed in white is vulnerable in a way most of us never experience . . .

Today we celebrate the triumph of the Cross, the victory of Life over death. It is a message of hope we badly need to hear, in the Middle East above all. Nearer home, the feast is often forgotten, just one of those names in the calendar people barely note. In monasteries this feast marks a turning-point. We begin the winter fast, often called the Little Lent, which will ensure that every Friday between now and Ash Wednesday will see us denying ourselves some food and drink in memory of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the wounds dealt by sin are marked on His flesh for all eternity, so we too will mark our flesh with some small sacrifice in remembrance of Him. What else would you expect from ‘an incarnational religion’?

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