Triumph of the Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, also known as Triumph of the Cross.

It is also the day I have decided to start blogging again. Those familiar with my blog in the past may recall that I put it on hold because the assignments for the diaconate program were consuming a great deal of my time and I thought it best to put my focus there. I am still in the program for the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Knoxville, but we are at a point where I am able to pick up my writing again and be consistent with it. I hope those who read my blog in the past will return and that others will join in. As in the past, I plan to offer prayers and thoughts on various topics religious, political, social, etc…, as well as to offer reflections on how the diaconate training is going and, God willing, how my diaconate ministry transpires after ordination. I want to say at the beginning that I’m not very good with computers, so this blog will not be very fancy when it comes to lay out or artwork. I do plan on calling on some friends to help me with those elements. But, my hope is that those who come here will be more interested in the content than the trimmings.

The mystery of the cross is central to Christian faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9).

The cross, as well, is a source of confusion and anxiety for many. Why did Jesus have to suffer for our salvation? Could not God have saved us some other way? Why did Jesus have to die?

Sin and death go hand in hand. It is impossible to have sin and not have death, and even suffering unto death. The cause of death is sin. When humanity turned from God to sin, death became a reality for us, as a natural consequence of sin. We turned from righteousness to sin, from life to death. In choosing sin we chose death. The only way to be redeemed from this path is the death of sin, where sin loses its power of death over us. By death, of course, is not meant simply physical death, though it does include that. More importantly, it means spiritual death, eternal separation from God, who is life.

This is why sacrifice is necessary for redemption. The sacrifices the ancient Hebrews offered to God under the law in expiation for their sins represented their own lives sacrificed, their own blood spilled for the sake of their sins. The Letter to the Hebrews reveals, however, that such sacrifices were ineffective for the forgiveness of sins, but only a prefigurement of the efficacious sacrifice of Christ: “for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins” (Heb 10:4). These sacrifices, Hebrews says, “are offered according to the law.” But Christ came to do God’s “will” of taking away the first (the sacrifices of animals) “to establish the second” (Christ’s own sacrifice). “By this ‘will’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:8b-10). Hebrews continues, contrasting the ineffective sacrifices of the law with the efficacious sacrifice of Christ: “Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated” (Heb 10:11-14).

Why was Christ’s sacrifice efficacious for the forgiveness of sins while the sacrifices of the law were not? Because the animals sacrificed under the law only represented sin, while Christ actually became sin. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:1-3). St. Paul makes it even more clear in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Sin leads to death, so our only hope for redemption is the death of sin. God accomplished this when sin died on the cross in the flesh of Jesus Christ.

God’s plan to replace the ineffective sacrifices of the law with the efficacious sacrifice of Christ was prophesied by Isaiah in the four songs of the Suffering Servant, especially the fourth song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The prophet writes: “Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, but he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Is 53:4-6).

Of course, as St. Paul wrote, this was according to God’s plan. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). The prophet Isaiah continues: “But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain. By making his life as a reparation offering, he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days, and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him” (Is 53:10).

This is why we celebrate the cross. It is the instrument of our salvation, the tree on which sin was laid to death and the power of sin, which is death, overcome by Christ. “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55). The triumph of the cross, indeed!

God our Father, in obedience to you your only Son accepted death on the cross for the salvation of mankind. We acknowledge the mystery of the cross on earth. May we receive the gift of redemption in heaven. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (from The Liturgy of the Hours, morning prayer for Triumph of the Cross).

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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