Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Planting the Tree of the Cross

Pilot Printing. Used
with permission.
In the array of religious symbols, few are as ambivalent as the cross. Within a few centuries after Christ, a horrifying method of Roman capital punishment became the universal symbol of Christianity and permeates Western society. Although a growing respect for religious pluralism in our nation allows us to make room for other expressions of faith, American cultural instinct still assigns to the cross its most poignant memorial.

So when did the greatest hope of the human race once again come to mean primarily suffering and shame? We’ve all heard it and have probably said it: “What a cross…he carries (…she is…that would be)!” This aspect of it can’t be denied. In fact, Jesus made carrying the cross daily a requirement of discipleship (cf. Mt. 16:24). But why? Is it because of the suffering it entails, or the salvation?

Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Cross comes down on the side of salvation. Jesus’ self-emptying in the Incarnation and later on the cross is his supreme act of love for the Father, who sent him to save the world. St. Alphonsus de Liguori declared that “love, not nails, fastened Jesus to the cross.” Jesus himself said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn. 10:18). While the cross is no picnic, the message of the Gospel and of this day is that Jesus’ love for the Father and for us, which led him to the cross, released the stranglehold of sin and death, triumphed in the resurrection, and so, by the Holy Spirit, guaranteed undying life for everyone and everything human. No wonder the author of the book of Revelation could cry out in Christ’s name to a hunted, martyred Church, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer….Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Using a vivid image, contemporary theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that Jesus “exploded” sin from within. When I read that recently I couldn’t help thinking of…Harry Potter. Pursued by Valdemort, his nemesis, Harry made it his mission to find and destroy every “horcrux” that contained a piece of Valdemort’s soul (OK, so the theology skips a beat here) to put an end to the death and grief caused by Valdemort’s ambition. Although he didn’t realize it, Harry himself was the last “horcrux.” Valdemort mistakenly believed that if he could overcome Harry, he would be invested with unconquerable life. A matured Harry gave himself into Valdemort’s power in order to save his friends and in dying, became the evil lord’s undoing.

Whether we talk about wars or the petty rivalries in the workplace and the home, human struggles aim for a winner-take-all conquest. This may come as a surprise, but the sacrifice of Jesus did, too. The only difference is that God in Jesus triumphed not over human beings, but over what makes us less human—sin and death. He “made captivity itself a captive” (Eph. 4:8).

The way that that comes to us? Forgiveness. The cross is not only the sign that God reconciled us with himself. It is the act of reconciliation; it brought about that reunification with God and made unity with one another possible. Ever since then, the two aspects of suffering and salvation have always worked in tandem. Jesus planted the tree of the cross on Calvary, watered by the Holy Spirit and his own blood and tended by the Church in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Not surprisingly, the process doesn’t stop there, but out the confessional door, making us ambassadors of reconciliation (cf. 2Cor. 5:16-21).

Oh if ever there was an intersection of suffering and salvation in our relationships it’s in forgiveness! The cross attests that evil inflicts a gaping wound in our hearts that only forgiveness can heal. “Anything but that!” we protest, and so we cast about looking for something or someone else to do the job. Instead, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily change the one we resent, but allows something life-giving to take its place in us, so that we’re no longer burdened by the other person we can’t change.

Indignation and a desire for revenge would not have been enough to fuel the compassion of millions of people we saw, read about, or heard about on 9/11 and in its aftermath. Only a need to give senselessness some meaning, a meaning springing from love. One reader of this blog e-mailed me after the post of May 4, 2011, that commented on the assassination of Osama bin Laden. He wrote:
“Even though the event of 911 was horrific, we should not forget the outpouring of charity, altruism and love for neighbor that overshadowed the evil in the days and months after 911. It’s hard to stay angry, unless you really want to - and love (NOT time) heals all wounds, if we let it” (Kurtis D. Welton).
St. Paul would say: “Where sin increased, grace increased even more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so too would grace reign in reconciliation leading to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:20-21).

Thoughts to help us in the process, from Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach, (which, this week, ranks #16 in’s top 100 Christian best sellers). Go to Embrace Forgiveness on Facebook to read stories, post a question,  and interact with the author, Fr. Scott Hurd:
“‘Forgive and forget’ may sound noble. Unfortunately, it’s just not realistic….Our minds don’t come equipped with a delete button…. Forgiveness may not require forgetting, but it does require letting go.” 
 “‘I would often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart’” (Steven McDonald, NYPD, after forgiving the teen who shot and paralyzed him).
“Guilt does not have to paralyze us. Instead, it can provide the energy that spurs us into action, leading us to seek forgiveness….Simply put, people who know they’re forgiven are much more likely to be people who forgive.”
“God wants to forgive us more than we could ever want to sin….He’s dying to forgive us—which is exactly what he has already done!”

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1 comment:

  1. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”- Mahatma Gandhi


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