“Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim!” we sing in a popular hymn suitable for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which the Church celebrates September 14.
On this feast, which dates to the seventh century, we honor the cross of Christ and what it represents to us. But do we also exalt our own crosses, the ones we are called to bear each day – even in these trying times?
It’s been an unusual year, to say the least. The coronavirus pandemic has forced social restrictions and shutdowns that have created economic challenges and job loss, as well as a generalized stress in communities and households nationwide as we attempt to cope with the “new normal.” Alongside that has come civil unrest and violence in many cities, ostensibly in reaction to racism in law enforcement and beyond.
For some, these circumstances have resulted in not much more than inconvenience. We’ve had to wear face masks, shelter in place, work from home, restrict our leisure and social life, and cancel vacations. We’ve been deprived of Mass and the sacraments for varying stretches of time. It hasn’t been fun, and we’ve been a bit more stressed, but we’ve done okay.
But the pandemic also has hit millions with layoffs or reduced income due to restrictions on business or travel. Some have been affected directly by the riots and demonstrations, or by the racial prejudice they protest. Others have suffered the effects of the COVID-19 virus itself or lost loved ones to the disease. Those on the fringes, the poorest and most vulnerable, have perhaps been hit hardest.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has its origins in the discovery of the true cross of Christ in the fourth century by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Once the cross and the tomb of Christ were excavated, she had the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site. The cross immediately became an object of public veneration, and with it came the Good Friday tradition of reverencing, touching, or kissing the cross. The feast each September 14 marks the anniversary of the basilica’s dedication.
As we come to this great feast, here are a few truths to ponder:
There is no resurrection without the cross. Jesus had to die to rise; his triumph over sin and death meant enduring death to redeem us from sin. We too must endure suffering and death to rise again with him. “Unless there is a Good Friday in our lives there will never be an Easter Sunday,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his Life of Christ. “The Cross is the condition of the empty tomb, and the crown of thorns is the preface to the halo of light.”
If we are true Christians, we must bear our own crosses heroically. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” Jesus said (Lk 9:23). He then restated this more pointedly: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (9:27). Suffering is part of our human condition, so crosses are inevitable. The mark of a true follower of Christ is how we endure our trials and tribulations.
Our crosses provide opportunities for growth in holiness and virtue. “No pain, no gain,” goes a popular motto usually applied to exercise and sports training. It also applies to the interior life. Just as we practice fasting and self-denial to build resistance to temptation, so can we use our physical and mental suffering as a means of building virtues. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us,” St. Paul exhorts us (Rom 5:3-5).
We are called to help others carry their crosses. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ,” writes St. Paul (Gal 6:2). Often the best way to avoid getting too self-absorbed over our own crosses is to consider those around us whose burdens are greater. Jesus took time on the road to Calvary to minister to others along the way despite his own agony. When we reach out to assist those who suffer, we extend Christ’s love and compassion to them. A wonderful way to do this is through involvement in Knights of Columbus activities such as Faith in Action programs and Leave No Neighbor Behind initiatives.
If we share in the cross of Christ, we will share in his glory. “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). If we endure our suffering heroically as disciples of Christ, we know that the unimaginable and eternal happiness we experience in heaven will be infinitely greater than whatever befalls us in this life.
We reverence Christ’s cross for the salvation it won for us, the ultimate victory over evil. We know, through the cross, that goodness, truth and justice win in the end. We only need to persevere in faith, embracing and bearing our own crosses as faithful disciples, and “being there” for our neighbors who struggle with their own crosses.
So as we mark this feast during this difficult year, we might take heart from the words of St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a Knights of Columbus member in Indiana.
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