Twenty-Third Sunday and the Wisdom of the Cross

So you, O son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel’ (Ez. 33:7).

This mission given by the Lord God to the Prophet Ezekiel is in turn, the task of those charged with oversight in the Church, the New Israel of God; bishops most certainly and priests no less who assist the bishop in tending the flock of Christ. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1Pet. 5:8). Vigilance and sobriety of thought and of life are the best defence against the errors in any age and time that would have us turn from the law of God and embrace wickedness. All too often the moral demands of God’s law are presented as too onerous and perhaps more insidiously, as no longer applicable or relevant to the creature called ‘modern man’. This adjective, modern, has literally been the death of millions, metaphorically speaking, as it applies to the life of the spirit and by consequence, tragically so, literally in the death and destruction of countless human lives.

The sacred author of the Epistle to the Hebrews summarizes the unfolding of Salvation history by reminding us that in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets: but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Our Lord continues to speak to us through His word which is living and active…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). This word is the word of the cross…the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). It is by the Cross of Christ alone that we are healed and saved. St. Paul explains: For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1. Cor. 1: 21-25).

The world has not essentially changed since the time of the Prophets and of the Apostles because human nature is the same; and so we also preach Christ crucified for the word of the cross…is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). This is the paradox of the Christian faith. A paradox, by definition, is a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true. Is the cross really the power of God? How is it so? St. John Henry Newman explains: Such then is the law of Christ’s kingdom; such is the paradox which is seen in its history. It belongs to the poor in spirit; it belongs to the persecuted, it is possessed by the meek, it is sustained by the patient. It conquers by suffering; it advances by retiring, it is made wise through foolishness (Sanctity the Token of the Christian Empire, 1842). Our Lord leads us to this truth as He did His disciples; and we also, as we mature in the faith, come to understand the truth and power of the word of the cross. This is certainly evident in the lives of the Saints; and some saints have shared with us their understanding of what amounts to the essence of our discipleship.

Just over a month ago we celebrated the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the Carmelite nun and martyr. She was a very learned woman, a brilliant scholar contributing both to philosophy and pedagogy, the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of teaching. In the summer of 1942, when she and her sister Rosa were summarily taken away from the monastery in Echt in Holland, the nuns found the manuscript of her last complete literary work lying open in her room. The title of this book is The Science of the Cross. In this work she makes a very important observation:

Many believers are depressed because the facts of salvation history do not at all (or no longer) impress them as they ought, and lack the strong influence on their lives that they should exert. The example of the saints demonstrates to them how things should actually be: where there is genuine, lively faith, there the doctrine of the faith and the ‘tremendous deeds of God’ are the content of life. All else steps aside for it and is determined by it. This is holy realism: the original receptivity of the soul reborn in the Holy Spirit (The Science of the Cross, p.10). What is the greatest of the tremendous deeds of God if not the Death of the Son of God on the Cross? St. Paul realised this truth and so he wrote: but far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world (Gal. 6:14).

This explains why one the Church’s earliest feasts is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, as early as the year 335. It is a Feast that celebrates this holy realism on God’s part. He really did suffer death to redeem us so that we might share His life. Our holy realism is our receptivity, our acceptance of God’s deeds and words at face value. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross observed: Such realism, when it leads a holy soul to accept the cross becomes the science of the saints. If the mystery of the cross becomes its inner form, it turns into a science of the cross (The Science of the Cross, p. 11). This word science is to be understood as knowledge; what corresponds to reality. The Mystery of the Cross, the word of the cross, these are the realities upon which we establish the reality of our lives; and this is the saving knowledge that in time deepens and grows becoming a holy wisdom that we in turn hand on to others, most especially our children by teaching them the spirit of sacrifice.

As an educator, St. Teresa noted: The soul of a child is soft and impressionable. Whatever influence enters there can easily form it for a lifetime. When the facts of salvation history are introduced in early childhood and in an appropriate form, this may easily lay a foundation for a saintly life (The Science of the Cross, p. 11). Another Teresa, St. Therese of Lisieux, developed her spiritual doctrine on the foundation of this text: ‘Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 18:3). So we approach these mysteries, these realities and our sacred history with the heart of a child. We seek neither to subtract what is difficult nor add what may suit our modern sensibilities. Truth Himself speaks truly or there is nothing true. We accept the truths of Revelation at face value and we endeavour to make these the foundation for a saintly life.

The modern world and the so-called modern church – a work in progress for decades now – are busy not simply fashioning new and improved rules to live (and to die) by; but what is more, even revising history. Nevertheless, history is recorded; while narratives are fashioned and fabricated. Therefore, be sober, be vigilant. Do not allow yourselves to be led astray by half-truths and illusions. The Reality of the unchanging Eucharistic Sacrifice must be the foundation of our life, a saintly life. May Our Lord increase in us a lively faith enabling us to enter ever more fully into the knowledge of this saving mystery of Our Lord’s Cross. Where there is genuine, lively faith, there the doctrine of the faith and the ‘tremendous deeds of God’ are the content of life. All else steps aside for it and is determined by it. Our Lord has left us the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the memorial of His Passion; that we might always glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, [and]through whom we are saved and delivered (Entrance Antiphon, Exaltation of the Holy Cross, The Roman Missal).