Symbol of love

By: By Barbara Roedel

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Sept. 14

Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 78:1bc-2,34-35,36-37,38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

It’s painful to contemplate the cross. There is no denying the horrific suffering of the cross — the degradation, pain and humiliation are beyond imaging. It was a terrible way to die and was reserved for the worst criminals. It symbolized the threat of what would happen to you if you went up against the Roman Empire.

The Romans used crucifixion as a form of state-sponsored terrorism. The very purpose of the cross was to threaten and intimidate so no person would attempt to push an agenda counter to the political powers of the time for fear of being condemned to die on the cross. The message was clear: Don’t mess with Rome!

So what does it mean to celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross? It sounds impossible to equate triumph with the scandalous execution of Jesus. The cross appeared to represent the defeat of everything Jesus preached and lived.

The Gospel of John presents a very different and rich theology of the cross, however. It captures both the suffering and the victory. The cross does not end with Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather with glorification, with the promise of eternal life. It becomes a holy cross that triumphs.

Two competing icons emerge. In the past it has often been seen as Jesus suffering on the cross for our sins and receiving the punishment that we should receive. In recent years, we have considered this icon as representing a horrific image of God as a punishing God, a God that settles scores and is out to get us.

Our faith pushes us to a new understanding of the cross as an icon of love. Jesus is the sign of this love. We witness this continually in the Gospels. Jesus did not imprison, afflict or torture, but rather liberated and healed people of their fears and illnesses. He never preached hate and revenge, but rather he taught us to love God and one another. And, Jesus condemned no one, rather he forgave even his executioners.

Out of human rejection, fear and pride, humans crucified Jesus. Yet God’s message to us in Jesus on the cross is very beautiful. It says, “No matter what you do to me, no matter how evil it is, no matter how deadly and vicious, I’ll always love you.”

God brings redemption out of the terrible things of life. The cross becomes an icon of love transforming Jesus’ death to eternal life. The horrible symbol of torture and suffering becomes the symbol of resurrection and hope. It becomes a reminder of our need for God’s grace. It is a sign of death transformed to life and is a witness of God’s love and faithfulness to us.

The mystery of the cross reveals the crucifixion of Jesus as the final act that breaks the cycle of sacrifice and atonement revealing God as a God of love. The instrument of shame, torture and death — the cross — stands at the center of religion, joy and life. Love triumphs. Faith is sustained. Despair is shattered. Resurrection and salvation are given.

As the hymn says: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name.”

The mission director at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, Barbara Roedel holds a master’s degree in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peoria Heights.

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