The New Testament is full of references to the Cross. The first mention of it is in Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve, where he makes a negative statement: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). A few chapters later, he puts it positively, reemphasizing the importance of the cross in the life of every disciple, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). These invitations to “take up” what in the ancient Roman world was the worst form of execution must have been bewildering to the disciples. The cross means suffering and death. What possible value can it have?

The “Way of the Cross” only begins to make sense in light of Jesus’ own passage from death to life. Jesus’ Cross reveals a completely new and wondrous dimension to suffering and death – as a way to eternal glory! Last Tuesday we read one of St. Paul’s references to the glory of the Cross, where he speaks about how God gave us who were dead in sin new life in company with Christ: “He brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (Col 2:13-15).

Today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, is a joyful celebration of Christ’s triumph. We focus, not so much on our experience of the Cross, with all its contradictions, but on the victorious dimension of the Cross, which is revealed in the Resurrection. The transformation of the Cross from a sign of humiliation and defeat into a sign of power and glory is summarized in today’s reading from Philippians, St. Paul’s famous hymn on the self-emptying of Christ. The Lord was already glorious in his union with the Father, but he “emptied himself”; he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Paul joyfully continues, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him.” And because Jesus has been “greatly exalted,” we exalt the Cross today, as the holy instrument, the powerful weapon he used to accomplish his triumph.

The Greek word for “exalt” can also mean “lift up.” Jesus creatively combines the two meanings in his conversation with Nicodemus: “… so must the Son of Man be lifted up” – lifted up on the Cross and exalted in glory – “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” God’s plan was always that we should have eternal life in him. But when sin entered the world, bringing on us the consequence of death, it seemed as if God’s plan had been thwarted. What was God’s answer? He sent his Son into the world to be “lifted up,” “that the world might be saved through him.”

We need today’s Feast to remind us of what we so often fail to recognize, the glory of the Cross. Usually our response to suffering is to complain and resist, much like the Israelites in the desert, who complained against God and Moses. They were being saved from slavery in Egypt, but the journey into freedom wore out their patience. Before long, everything about the process of being freed seemed intolerable. “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!” In our case, we might be complaining about wretched food, but more likely we are finding some other aspect of life intolerable: the difficulties and deprivations, the people we live with and work with, personal inadequacies, physical or mental or financial limitations, even the burden of oppressive weather.

Complaining only makes us more miserable. The more we resist the Cross, the heavier it gets. We can learn a vital lesson from the Israelites’ desert experience: what reverses our suffering is not our stubbornness and our complaints but our repentance and humble obedience. Rather than flee the Cross, we must look at it, which means to “look upon him whom we have pierced” (Jn 19:37). Just as the Israelites in the desert recovered when they looked at the bronze serpent, we look to the Cross of Jesus Christ with faith for our own healing to take place. When Moses lifted up the bronze serpent over the people, it was a foreshadowing of the salvation we received when Jesus was lifted up on the Cross.

The Lord was lifted up so that we may be lifted up. He was crucified that we may be glorified. However, our exaltation comes through our obedience and humble acceptance of the Cross in our lives. As he took up the Cross, we are to take up the Cross and follow him. As we make the Sign of the Cross whenever we pray, we fix our minds and hearts on Christ’s love and his victory. The Sign of the Cross is our strength in trials and our protection against temptations. Let us look to the Cross frequently and say, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world!”

How do I see the crosses in my life as sharing in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ? Why do I tend to have a negative reaction to the Cross and sufferings and not a positive acceptance to it? What efforts do I make to see the crosses that God sends me as blessings for my spiritual growth?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.