“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” (Galatians 6:14).
Dearly beloved brethren, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
On the 14th of this month, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church expects us to lift up the glorious Cross on which the saviour of the world hung upon, that the world may look and appreciate the full measure of love that the Father almighty and the Crucified one has for humankind. Also, by raising our eyes towards the crucified one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we discover the very source of life and salvation.
I am deeply delighted to reflect with you in this month of September on the instrument of our salvation (the Cross) through the lens of the veteran preacher and Apostle, Paul whose words from his letter to the Galatians is the entrance antiphon for the Liturgy of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
To Boast in the Cross
The Cross means a lot of things to many people; some are friends with it, a few detest a little about it, others do not fully grasp what it means. Yet, St. Paul makes an audacious statement to his hearers that he neither boasts in pecuniary achievements nor in intellectual endowments nor in his valour but in the Cross of Jesus. It is true that at the mention of the word Cross, our minds quickly connects with the crucifixes on our sanctuaries, our homes, Rosaries or the cross on the top of our Churches. However, this would not do justice to giving us a true understanding into the deep meaning of Paul’s words unless we travel down history to the Roman Empire where crosses were pitilessly used as capital punishment.
Death by crucifixion was the cruelest kind of death that any human person could experience. It was very gruesome that many times those crucified began to utter different kinds of provocative words to their executioners, cursing them and even cursing the day they were born so much so that their tongues in some instances had to be cut off. It was not a beautiful sight to behold therefore it had to stand outside the city walls, decorated only with the decaying corpses and also as a threat to anyone who defies Rome’s authority. Correspondingly, it had its social stigma since it was a very shameful way to die. In that epoch, it was a great shame for it to be said “his son died by crucifixion” or “that’s the family of the man who died by crucifixion”. No one wanted this kind of thing to be said about them or people close to them.
In his first letter to the Corinthians (1:23) Paul states that the crucifixion of Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. To the Gentiles the image of a crucified man was a symbol of shame, weakness and disgrace. The Greeks took so much pleasure in esteemed learning, aesthetics and strength as the path to attaining wisdom. They relished the autonomous use of reason to discern a world of order and perfection. They understood the Creator as a “Divine mind” who gave order and purpose to the universe. Therefore the very thought that the Creator would allow the torture of an innocent man to atone for the sins of others was seen as immoral, wicked and inconceivable.
The Jews on the other hand regarded anyone hung on a tree as irrevocably cursed by God (Deut. 21:23). Besides the shame and squalor of this kind of death, the executed person while hanging on the wood would be unable to fall on his knees to pray as a final act of repentance before God hence the Jews understand this as being under the irrevocable curse of God. To die without asking forgiveness was in itself damnation. Since Jesus was rejected as the Messiah by the Jews, the idea that the Messiah was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Gal. 3:13) to redeem us, is offensive to Jews and Jewish religion even till today.
The Cross of Jesus, with all the shame, horror and social stigma which was sneered at by the Gentiles and abhorred by the Jews was what St. Paul graciously admired and proudly boasts in. He understood that the instrument of torture has become a source of life, pardon, mercy, a sign of reconciliation, peace, love and victory. Carefully note his inclusion which has a profound spiritual touch: he does not refer to the instrument of torture per se, but he speaks with an especial reference to The Cross of Jesus, distinctively marking it from others which cannot give life and healing. When we speak about the Cross today throughout the world, it is almost undoubted that the reference is to the Cross of Jesus because by His presence on the wood, a great revolution took course that the emblem of suffering and hate had become the symbol of the greatest love a man can have (see Jn. 15:13). The Cross of Jesus is the mystery of the universality of God’s love for men, it is (as Pope Benedict XVI says) “a kind of synthesis of our faith, for it tells how much God loves us; it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weaknesses and sins. The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us.”
The World is Crucified unto me and I unto the World
Paul’s first point of consideration is to give a clear picture of what he means by “The world”. The term does not refer to some geographical space or natural habitat rather it denotes unregenerate mankind together with the entire habits of life that are inimical to spiritual growth as well as the civil, social and religious structures that rebel against God. (See James 4:4 – Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?).
In a language of extraordinary passion, Paul articulates the complete transformation which, through the Cross of Jesus, his own life had undergone. The world, he says, had become to him a thing crucified (“…the world has been crucified to me”): not only a dead thing, ceasing to interest or attract him, but also a vile, accursed thing, something he loathed and despised. With the same abhorrence and scorn with which the Jews and Gentiles viewed the Cross of Jesus, Paul in turn sees the world in that manner so much that nothing from the world interests him; the world is crucified to him. Reading Gal 5:16-26, Paul’s exposition of the desires of the flesh are not dissimilar to the concept of the world. Each one of us is called to see in the Cross of Jesus our own crucifixion where all worldly desires are crushed and do not excite us anymore. How many times have we been to confession to relinquish old habits of sin and resolve to live worthy lives that please God yet we fantasize about those sins and occasions of sin and even relish them, gradually slipping back into murky state of sin? By the very act of envisioning those sins or evil structures again, it means they have not been crucified to us because they beckon on us and we lovingly yield.
On the other hand he says also “… and I crucified unto the world”: conversely, he himself had become a crucified thing unto the world; not only had he ceased to present to the world any or all that could interest or attract it, but he had also become to it a thing scouted and abhorred. Paul can no longer give to the world those things that would gratify and motivate the world because he operates on a frequency that is higher and holier which would not let him condescend to the paralyzed bandwidth of the world. In fact, the best explanation for this new rapport between himself and the world is found in 1 Corinthians 4:13, where he says “… we have become and are now as the rubbish of world, the dregs of all things.” If we have become the hogwash and filth of the world, then truly and rightly so we cannot (and should not) give to the world what it seeks. The moment we have a fueling hatred for sin, we can be rest assured that we have started our crucifixion; we are becoming the scum to the world.
In Christ Jesus, our sins and worldly passions are put to death and the consequences are ecstatically paradoxical and daring. How so? Because the world henceforth regards us as a dead people, who have no longer any attractions that it should desire us. In actual fact it is not us who are dead but the world itself which Christ had conquered during his public life on earth and even more grievously on the Cross to give us life eternal by his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven.
Therefore the world claims us no longer as its own and it bitterly hates us to the point of persecution. That we no longer belong to the world as a result of our inter-crucifixion with Jesus, that in itself is freedom. We glory in the Cross of Jesus because we find life, restoration, pardon, healing, mercy and freedom; the Exaltation of the Cross is about our freedom, our independence, and our glory.
God bless you.
+ Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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