Amid the greatest torments, I fix the gaze of my soul upon Jesus Crucified; I do not expect help from people, but place my trust in God. In His unfathomable mercy lies all my hope.(Diary of Sr. Faustina, article 681)
Dearly beloved brethren, I am deeply delighted to reflect with you in this month of September on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the 14thof this month, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church expects us to raise our eyes towards the crucified one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and get a deep understanding of Divine love.
Anywhere we go this day even in our secular society, we are most likely to see a Cross. It is most unlikely to go through any settlement where we will not see at least one Christian church, with a Cross sitting above it. Meanwhile for the early Christians, these sights must have been met with either strange looks, or utter misunderstanding. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes “We preach Christ crucified, 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 hallowed education, aesthetics and strength for attaining wisdom. The use of reason to discern the material world’s purpose was of prime value. It would make no sense therefore (as it does not appeal to reason) that an innocent man should be tortured to atone for the sins of others. The Jews on the other hand regarded anyone hung on a tree as irrevocably cursed by God (Deut. 21:23). 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.
With his passion, death and glorious resurrection from the dead, the Cross has a new meaning and understanding as it was converted from an icon of defeat to that of victory and power; from an emblem of death to a sign of life and healing. When we gaze on the Cross of our Lord, not as Jews nor Greeks what do we see? What do you see?
Once upon a time, St. John Damascene writes, “As the four ends of the Cross are held together and united by its center, so are the height and the depths, the length and the breadth, that is, all creation visible and invisible, held together by the power of God.” What a beautiful picture of the Cross that must have been the product of a deep and loving gaze. “Deep” because you go beyond what is just presented before you, beyond the conventional relation with the Cross to one that assesses it with the eyes of faith. “Loving” because you want to understand the sacrificial action of this man, the Lord Jesus “who went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) while he walked this earth many years ago. His willingness to undergo this cruel course could not have fallen short of his loving heart towards each one of us. This is the power of God to change what the world has called weak, shameful and dead into something powerful and redeeming. Paul’s own experience reminds us that God’s power is made manifest even in the weakest of things, men and situation (cf. 1 Cor. 1:27; 2 Cor. 12:9). When things are at the lowest ebbs in our lives as individuals and as a Nation, when we gaze upon the Cross, does it remind us of the transformative power of God or has it remained only a mental knowledge for us?
Another veteran preacher, pastor and early Church Father, St. John Chrysostom reflected on the Cross and in one of his articles, On the Holy Cross, which I shall quote copiously from, he writes, “Through the Cross we have been freed from the tyranny of the devil, and through the Cross we have been delivered from death and destruction. When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were held fast by death; now the, Cross is proclaimed, and we have come to despise death, as though it did not exist, while we have come to long for everlasting life. When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were strangers to paradise; but when the Cross appeared, at once a thief was found worthy of paradise. From such darkness the human race has crossed over to infinite light; from death it has been called to everlasting life, from corruption it has been renewed for incorruption. For the eyes of the heart are no longer covered by the darkness that comes through ignorance, but through the Cross they are flooded with the light of knowledge. The ears of the deaf are no longer shut by unbelief, for the deaf have heard the word of the Lord, and the blind have recovered their sight to see the glory of God. These are the gifts we are given through the Cross. What blessing has not been achieved for us through the Cross?” Re-read everything that this early Father of the Church has placed before us, when we gaze upon the Cross do we see the need to be thankful for the blessings spoken from this pulpit? Often times we focus so much on the mishaps in our lives and things we do not yet have, causing an instant amnesia of the many wonderful things we have to be thankful for. Do you see this when you gaze upon the Cross?
The Crucifixion of our Lord was the greatest act of love ever known. There is a saying that goes: “I asked Jesus how much he loved me and he stretched out his arms for us on the Cross and said, I love you this much.” Jesus’ heart was bursting with the Father’s love. All through His lifetime, Jesus reflected God’s love for the people by the mercy and kindness He showed them, even to the end. It is this love that empowered Him to give His life freely for all. For “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Do you see how much you are loved by the creator? As we usually sing that song in our locality, “He loves me I cannot say why?”, we truly cannot find an answer that appeals to our reasoning, for his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not ours too (cf. Is 55:8-9). How do you feel when the world caves you in that you don’t seem to recognize your worth? Certainly, it is a feeling that is unpleasant. What matters most is not how much the world values you but how invaluable you are with all your imperfections by God. You want to see how true this, then gaze upon the Cross.
When we gaze upon the Cross, do we see ourselves crucified as Paul will say in his letter to the Galatians “… and I crucified unto the world”? (Galatians 6:14). Paul himself had become crucified 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 thingscouted and abhorred. Paul can no longer give to the world those things that would gratify and motivate the world because he does not operate on that scheme. In fact, the best explanation 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 garbage 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 unimaginable because the world hence forth regards us as a dead people, who have no longer any attractions that it should desire us. That we no longer belong to the world as a result of our crucifixion with Jesus, is freedom.
May I request that you pray before the crucifix (as frequently as you can) and gaze upon it. Remember that to “gaze” is more than to merely “look” because when we gaze, we seek to look beyond the image we see and to peer into the love that brought Jesus to that moment. It is by our gaze that we see the God of inestimable love who was willing to go through the crucible to deliver us from our sins and for all time loves us with a seamless love.
God bless you.
†Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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