GRATITUDE, NOT GRUMBLINGS
Catholic Homily / Reflection on the Liturgy of the Day
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Sept. 14, 2009
It is easy enough to sound pious and serene during the good days. It costs nothing much to talk about braving the storm when the sun is up and shining, and it is no problem to talk about living life fully when one is healthy, when one is in the prime of life, and when everybody around you seems to be bubbling with the energy of relative health and youth.
But it is when we find ourselves wandering apparently aimlessly in the hot and sultry desert of uncertainty and monotony that all niceties and superficial piety evaporate faster than the manna of old could be desiccated by the merciless desert sun. In times such as these, when the reality of a difficult, nomadic life in the desert, far from one’s real home, far from the relative comforts of a life one has gotten used to, albeit in slavery in a foreign land, far from the much awaited “promised land,” one understands why the Israelites gave in to grumblings and complaints: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
When one looks at pain, suffering and death in the eye … when one sees mortal pain and the very real possibility of yourself or someone you love dying soon … when anguish, mortal anguish stares you in the face and you know it won’t go away anytime soon, gratitude grovels and shrivels at the root. Grumblings take the better of us, and our eyes are cast downward in desperation, if not anger or frustration, at a God who does not seem to care.
So why does the Church celebrate the ultimate symbol of pain, suffering and death – the cross? Why is it that Church liturgy since early times, extols the cross, which, after all, was the most shameful, most painful, most inhumane, and most humiliating form of capital punishment humankind has ever invented? The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that we CELEBRATE today, indeed, defies logic and what so many people call common sense.
There is simply no logic, no rhyme and reason to it all! That is, from the purely human, earthly, worldly way of reckoning and reasoning.
But it is this very same lack of logic and explanation that stands behind the reason for our celebration today. Celebration, the kind we do in our times, is really cheap. The kind of celebration we often do may not go beyond commemoration – an act of remembering an event that happened in the past. Thus we celebrate birthdays. We gather to remember the event of our birth or of a loved one or a friend. We also celebrate anniversaries. And we keep count of the years and each one has a particular appellation attached: paper anniversary, silver anniversary, pearl anniversary, golden, diamond, etc. The celebration that we often do is a look backward in time, a counting of years gone by, mostly, assuredly, not a bad motivation to pop a bottle of champagne for, or make a sumptuous spread of food to be shared with friends and loved ones.
Today, however, the Church celebrates the exaltation of the cross. Here we speak primarily not of a material event that happened at some point in the past. Here, we are face to face with a MEANING of an event, a meaning attached to a salvific event that, indeed, took place in the past but which has repercussions that persist up until the present, and the future. Historical though it definitely is, what we celebrate really goes beyond history, for the meaning of it all embraces the realm of mystery.
We celebrate the exaltation of the cross, based on a historical event of the discovery of the wood of the cross by St. Helena, but which goes beyond that undoubtedly historically significant event. We celebrate the meaning attached to a bigger event – the salvific event that the cross stands for – the mystery of our salvation!
But all this serves nothing to assuage my pain and suffering, you say? What for is all this deep theologizing if this cannot at all remove the pain I am undergoing at the moment? Where does all this conceptualizing lead one who is deep in the throes of real, personal pain to? Just what advantage does Christian faith have over others who are in similar predicaments? Just what sort of bearing does my faith have on this existential pain that just would not go away?
I would like to think that the same first reading gives us a clue to the answer. “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
The implication seems to be clear enough. No, there is no direct and cut-and-dried answer to pain and suffering. No, the cross will not take away the pain, for that is what the cross is all about. It is all about facing pain headlong. It is all about meeting death squarely. It is all about embracing suffering and dying in answer to a summons and a call from above. It is all about doing the will of Him who sent him, so that others might live!
Faith therefore does not have a ready answer to our existential questions. Faith offers no solutions to concrete problems that are part and parcel of our being human – fallen, but redeemed. Faith ought to lead us to a spirituality and spirituality, among others, means a way of making concepts and the contents of our faith come to fruition and application in our lives. Spirituality is not mere knowing what to believe. Spirituality is being caught up in a world of meaning, a world of mystery. Rainier Maria Rilke speaks of this in terms of not anymore trying to find answers to difficult questions, but in terms of loving the very questions themselves.
There is a whole lot of tension in my personal life of faith right now, I must confess. It is tension that springs from a difficulty I find myself in right now – that of integrating my faith with the current situation of personal pain associated with the work I am expected to do. In moments such as these, I am called, as much as each one of you is, or will be, at some time or other in your lives, to love the very questions themselves, and to embrace the mystery of the cross which, for the nth time, has become more than just an image, an icon, or a feast to preach on. The cross has once more become real to me, so real as to cause sleepless nights and veritable “wrestling” bouts with the Lord of life, the God of the living and of the dead – and of the dying!
There is need for me, and for all of us, to “look up to the Lord” as much as the Israelites, bitten by the serpent that stood for everything vile and unacceptable in our lives, had to look up to the bronze serpent on the pole. I need to look and really see beyond the event that gives so much anguish and pain. I need to have perspective!
This, my friends, is what faith-become-a-spirituality offers us – perspective! This is what we all need to keep in mind and treasure in our hearts – perspective … a way of looking at reality, at events, at everything that happens, or does not happen, or could happen, come what may; happen what might!
Although it may sound trite and worn to some of you, let me remind you of an old, old song that comes in handy as I face life ahead, hopefully with an unflinching, unflappable perspective … “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to know Thee more clearly; love Thee more dearly; follow Thee more nearly, day by day!”
Day by day! It is my hope and prayer that all of us get to have that needed perspective that would give us the needed strength and courage to face what needs to be faced. Today is a good day to begin. In this perspectival view of life, the cross looms large in the horizon. And blessed are those who have seen and believed, because by His cross, Christ has redeemed the world!