As a young man, before he became Emperor, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. Caesar maintained an attitude of superiority throughout his long captivity. When the pirates were going to demand a ransom of twenty talents of silver, he insisted they ask for fifty. During his captivity Caesar conversed and ate with the pirates, played games with them, gave them speeches, and struck up a friendship with the pirates.
After the ransom was paid and he was freed, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates. He summarily had them crucified. But redeeming a promise he had made to them while in captivity, he showed them a sign of leniency: he first had their throats cut.
To cut their throats was a mercy because crucifixion was such a slow, painful, agonizing and totally degrading way to die. The cross was a horrible means of state execution.
Yet today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It should cause us some mental dissonance, like the Exaltation of the Hangman’s Noose, or a “celebration of the Electric Chair.” The words don’t fit well together.
Early Christians did not display the cross, because it was such a sign of shame and degradation and pain. They pictured Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the catacombs, but for 300 years did not picture the cross because it was so shameful and so painful.
So why are we exalting the Cross? Because this sign of defeat and degradation has, most surprisingly, even irrationally, certainly counter intuitively, become the prime and foremost symbol of God’s love.
In God’s mysterious plan even the cross – that instrument of torture - is redeemed and becomes a sign of overwhelming love.
St. Paul tells us in the beautiful hymn he quotes in our second reading today – that Jesus became “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
This obedience of Jesus is not at all like the obedience of your pet that you send to obedience school, a kind of learned reflex.
This obedience of Jesus is not at all like the obedience of a soldier to the orders of a superior officer, where it is not important that the soldier understand the reason for the order but only that the soldier comply fully with the order.
This obedience of Jesus is rather the fruit of prayer: of listening to the Father, of being with the Father in the Father’s desires and longings, in molding and forming and submitting Jesus’ own will to the Will of the Father, because the love between the Father and the Son is so strong. They are one. They are one heart, they are one Will. “Not my Will, but thine be done.” This is Jesus’ obedience.
And so Jesus “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
In this way, even the terrible instrument of torture, of total and utter degradation and shameful death, became instead a symbol of the fullness of love that overcomes every obstacle, even the most gruesome.
That is why we exalt the cross. By believing in Jesus, and in His power to change and mold us into His way of thinking and feeling and loving, we can overcome sin, and so be one again with God the Father. That union with God, that oneness of Will and heart, we call ‘salvation.’
That is why we exalt the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Happy Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross!