(Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17)
Today’s feast, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, goes back 1700 years to when the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross and issued an edict granting tolerance to Christianity. Afterwards, many people became Christians, including the emperor, but it was a mixed blessing, because then he wanted all the Christians to become soldiers and he reorganized the church by creating bishops who began to justify their participation in warfare, leading to the just war theory. But it’s an important feast because we don’t talk about the cross enough and in those days, they talked about it all the time. We need to ask ourselves, “Why was Jesus killed? What did the cross mean to Jesus? What does it mean to the early Christians? What does it mean for us?”
If you ask, “Why was Jesus killed?” everyone answers, “To save us from our sins.” Does that mean the Roman soldiers and Pilate said to themselves, “O good, if we crush and kill this innocent person, he’ll save us?” No, they killed him because he was a troublemaker, a revolutionary, telling people not to pay taxes, and not to worship the emperor. Does that mean that Jesus wanted to be killed? I don’t think so. He prayed in the Garden the night before his death that the cup would be taken away from him.
I think Jesus wanted everyone to welcome the reign of God, to do what he said. He didn’t want to be tortured and killed. But no one would accept his message. So he turned toward Jerusalem, walked into the Temple, disrupted the whole corrupt business of buying and selling doves and changing money in the name of God, and the religious authorities were furious and had him arrested, condemned by the empire, tortured and killed. The cross was the form of capital punishment they used then. It is the death penalty. So when he tells his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you have to deny yourself and take up your cross,” he’s saying you have to oppose the empire and be willing to be executed, martyred and they are totally shocked because they know he is serious.
As my friend Daniel Berrigan says, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”
If we are people of the cross, then I think we have to take up the cross, stand with the crucified and risk being crucified. Instead, most Catholics in the U.S., for example, support the death penalty; and stand with the executioners, the crucifiers, not the executed, the crucified. Most U.S. Catholics support war and the occupation of Iraq, and stand with the imperial killers, the crucifiers, not the killed, the crucified. Most Catholics support nuclear weapons, and stand with the imperial crucifiers, not the crucified peoples.
What does the cross mean? I don’t think, as one theologian said, the cross means having a bad day or a bad relationship or a flat tire. I think the cross of Jesus means confronting systemic injustice, like he did, in a spirit of active nonviolent love, insisting on the truth, calling for conversion, and announcing God’s reign. It means speaking out against the empire’s institutionalized evil, and willingly suffering for your stand. It means giving your life away for others as he did.
This is why I speak out against nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, and the unjust, horrific U.S. bombing and military occupation of Iraq, and the immoral lack of healthcare, jobs, education and housing, not because I like it or want attention, but because I’m supposed to be a follower of Jesus which means I have to carry the cross, too. All of us have to carry the cross with Jesus. This is the hallmark of our Christian discipleship. I don’t like all these New Age books and their spirituality because, while a lot of it is good, and makes you feel good, it is missing the cross. The cross makes Christianity so serious, authentic and real. The cross is very painful. It’s not fun; it’s not supposed to make us feel good. It disrupts our lives and demands great faith and love. That’s why we’re all trying to avoid it.
But the amazing thing about the cross is that, in the end, Jesus is right. The cross is the best way, the only way, to transform ourselves and the world. Jesus is betrayed and rejected, but he doesn’t yell or scream or hit anyone or kill anyone; he is perfectly loving and nonviolent. He trusts in God, forgives everyone, and still insists that the world has to change and welcome God’s reign, and as he suffers and dies with perfect nonviolent love and forgiveness on the cross, scales fall from our eyes, we realize the wrong we have done to this innocent person, we turn back to him, we start to make his reign of peace and nonviolence a reality in the world, and he wins us all over.
That’s why he says in John’s Gospel that eventually he will draw all people to himself. The cross works. Sacrificial love and martyrdom are the only way to change hearts and the world. And he wants us to participate in his redemptive work, to get on with the work of welcoming God’s reign.
Now the early Christians understood the cross much better than we do because they faced martyrdom every day, so they wrote this beautiful hymn which Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians, explaining how Jesus deliberately did not cling to power or being God, how he consciously emptied himself, became a slave, died on a cross, won everyone over, and is the most exalted human being who ever lived.
There’s an important Greek word which is used here, the only time in the whole New Testament–“kenosis,” which means, “to empty.” Jesus “emptied himself,” they said, and as his followers, we too have to “empty ourselves,” which I think means we have to let go of everything, give ourselves away, give our lives away for one another and the whole human race. We are not going to put anyone on the cross but ourselves. We are not going to support the crucifixion of anyone, but we are willingly to be crucified as Jesus was. That was their understanding of the cross.
So what does the cross mean for us? I invite you to think about this question. How are you accompanying Jesus as he carries his cross today in the world? How are you taking up the cross against injustice and violence? How do you use the power of suffering love, the dynamic and logic of the cross, to overcome problems in your life or at work or to resist violence in the world and welcome God’s reign?
In the end, the cross of Jesus offers ultimate meaning and power and even joy. If we side with the crucified one and the crucified peoples; if we refuse to side with the crucifiers or put people on the cross; if we vow never to hurt another human being again; if we take up the way of the cross and give our lives away for others like Jesus; if we speak out against injustice and try to stop the killings in the world, try to stop the crucifixion of the poor; if we even dare to suffer with love for truth, for others; if we try to live well and die well like Jesus–not only will our lives bear good fruit and we will leave the world a better place, we will be exalted with him, and share in his eternal life of resurrection peace.