In Catholic tradition, the teachings about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary have deep theological meaning. Often times, Jesus’ Passion opens a fresh chapter into the Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). The Calvary Event sets the tune for a sober reflection on The Exaltation of the Holy Cross often celebrated on 14th September. That celebration showcases Christianity as a practical religion which involves real people and actual suffering. We shall reflect on how the Cross which was supposed to be an instrument of shame became a source of salvation.
The discovery of the true Cross of Jesus by Saint Helena in 326AD on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem provides some background to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We are told that Saint Helena, the Mother of Emperor Constantine the Great discovered three crosses on Calvary. To identify the real Cross, a crippled-man was placed on each of the three crosses that were found; after a miracle occured on one of them, it was identified as the true Cross of Christ. It was this discovery that made Empress Helena to raise the Cross in her Palace in Rome. Later on, she elevated the Cross into the Church of the Holy Cross. History has it that many fragments of the Cross found their way to other parts of Christendom for veneration by Christian faithful. In Rome, a solemn procession from the Basilica of St. Mary Major to that of St. John Lateran takes place to venerate the Holy Cross before Mass. Gradually, the practice came to be fixed on every Good Friday. This leads us to the Sign of the Cross as an indispensable signature of Catholicism. To be sure, it is the insignia of our faith. The question that readily comes to mind is, why do we make the Sign of the Cross?
Why Catholics Make the Sign of the Cross
As Catholics, we make the sign of the Cross for the following reasons: There are three persons in God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; Jesus carried the wood (which has the shape of a Cross) to Calvary; he was crucified on the Cross with outstretched arms; his death on the Cross wrought our salvation; to ward off evil since it is an act of faith; to bless ourselves and seek good luck and goodwill from God and, it points to the vertical (love of God) and horizontal (love of neighbour) dimensions of love epitomised by Jesus’ paschal mystery.
The BVM has her share in the suffering of her Son. Little wonder, she is known as Our Lady of Dolours, the Sorrowful Mother or Mother of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa). This is why the Catholic Church teaches that there are Seven Sorrows of Mary. They include the Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35), the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-21), the Loss of Jesus for Three Days (Luke 2:41-50), the Carrying of the Cross (John 19:17) and the Crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:18-30). Right from the Prophesy of Simeon that a sword of sorrow would pierce her soul (Cf. Luke 2:34-35) to the reception of his body at Calvary, Mary bore a heavy Cross in heart can only be compared to excruciating pain a widow goes through at the brutal murder of her only child.
In a world where sugar-coating the gospel is the in-thing, the snakes that bit the Israelites in the desert (Cf. Numbers 21:4-9) becomes a metaphor for trials, temptation and tribulations. This shows that the Christian must always take up his or her own cross to follow Christ (Cf. Matthew 16:24- 26). Just as the Israelites pleaded with Moses to intercedeon their behalf (Cf. Numbers 21:4-9), if we approach Jesus on the Cross with a contrite heart, we would hear our plea. Christ who is exalted on the Cross is our redeemer and mediator. As such, those who look up to the Crucified-Christ would be healed just as the scripture testifies: “By his wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). The Bible (Cf. Philippians 2:6-11) reminds us that God raised Jesus because of his docility. This challenges us to emulate his self-abnegation and humility even as we use the his name as a weapon of warfare against the ancient enemy. The great encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (Cf. John 3:13-17) urges us to lift Jesus up in the daily event of our lives. That the BVM bore everything in her heart and pondered them (Cf. Lk 2:19) also teaches us to bear pain with equanimity trusting in God our refuge and strength (Psalm 46 ).
In his book The New Daily Study Bible William Barclay makes reference to what happened when the Irish Churchman, John Henry Newman died. He disclosed that the people erected a statue of him and on its pedestal and inscribed the words: Ab umbri et imaginibus ad veritatem which translates to: “Away from the shadows and the semblances to the truth.” In other words, away from the statue or portrait to the real man, John Henry Newman. Therefore, we ought to get away from the shadows and the semblances to the truth/reality. In like manner, the Cross is a glorious symbol of our faith. Therefore,whenever we pray before the Cross, our hearts are lifted up to heaven where every good thing comes. The Cross helps our worship and leads us to God. Since God is to be worshipped, adored and glorified (Psalms 86:9), it behooves his sons and daughters to take to Catholic Action by being Catholics who are proud of their faith 24/7. Indeed, the Cross is our banner and pride. We are, therefore, confident to say with St. Paul: “But God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).May the Mother of Sorrows intercede for us!
• Rev. Fr. Justine John Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.