In September 1995, I made my last private retreat to Chambers Island, located in the Bay of Green Bay, accessible only by a one hour boat trip from the mainland. At the municipal dock I was told that the trip was delayed because of high seas, so instead of leaving at noon, the boat didn’t leave until 8 pm. The Coast Guard was warning of increasing waves, some of them over 6 feet, so the skipper decided it was time to make the crossing before the weather deteriorated. It was not a good decision.
As soon as we got out of sight of the mainland, the squalls began, with 15 foot waves and cold driving rains that pummeled the 80 foot boat. Suddenly, a wave crashed onto the boat and demolished the front glass, injuring the skipper and the men in the front of the boat, half-filling the boat with icy water mixed with the blood from the injured men. I remember the pink water swirling around my waist and the terror that I was going to die at sea and never be found. I kept my mind on superficial things, fearful that I would otherwise be forced to watch the movie of my life—you know the one. It’s the last movie you see before death, when your life suddenly makes perfect sense and all is order. I was determined NOT to view that movie!
The crew began shouting for us to put on our life jackets in case we capsized, but my priest friend and I did not put ours on. We knew we would not be able to make that kind of swim in the high seas.
The boat’s pumps went on, emptying the boat of water and we continued our journey for another hour and a half. It brought back every childhood nightmare I had ever had about drowning at night and I recited endless Hail Marys aloud for the rest of the journey. Miraculously, we made it to the island and although I was soaked to the skin, shivering in the driving rain, I knelt down and kissed the ground. Coast Guard choppers were there to pick up the wounded and fly them back to the mainland hospital, and the rest of us were given strangers’ clothes to wear because our baggage had all been under water in the hold and everything inside was wet.
Before going to my room for the night, I purchased a black rosary in the gift shop and prayed it in my bed before going to sleep, something I have done every night since. In the morning at Mass, we said prayers of thanksgiving for our safety, prayers of healing for our comrades who had been injured in the storm. It was the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and I have had an emotional attachment to this feast ever since. It is, for me, evidence that the love of God conquers all terror and fear.
The readings today keep drawing our attention to the historical fact that our salvation comes to us because Jesus suffered on the cross. Why does God choose to bring life through capital punishment? Honestly, I do not know. None of us do. All we know is that God loved us so much that He sent His only Son to be our Redeemer. It is the ultimate paradox that we find joy through suffering, liberation through being imprisoned, life from going through the valley of death.
The first reading today, from the Book of Numbers, speaks about an infestation of venomous snakes that were killing the chosen people. This is a fantastic story and speaks to all kinds of images. It is an image that says that we are healed by what we fear will kill us. It is an image that speaks about a pole and by looking at the image on the pole, the people are saved.
For some Christians, the image of the body of Christ on the cross is seen as negative, as demonstrating that we are fixated on death, on rejecting resurrection. For us Catholics, this is not a denial of resurrection at all, but rather an acknowledgement that resurrection only comes about through the death one aspect of reality. We look forward to resurrection but we also have reason to rejoice in the difficult journey that leads inevitably to that destination.
The historical basis of this feast day is the finding in the year 326 of the relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. According to St John Chrysostom, St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, longed to find the cross of Christ. For this reason she travelled to Jerusalem where she organized an archeological dig at the hill of Calvary. The workers uncovered three wooden crosses, believing them to be the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves who had been crucified with him. They could not tell which was which, of course, so, the legend says, they brought a sick woman and a dead man who was being carried to burial. The three crosses were placed one after the other on the sick woman and on the dead man. Two of the crosses had no effect, but on contact with the third cross, the sick woman was healed of her infirmity and the dead man came to life. These stories spread rapidly through the Christian world and the legend persists even today. This parish happens to own a piece of this original cross, which is affixed today on our processional cross.
News of the finding of the cross quickly spread and believers gathered to see it and to venerate it. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Makarios, standing on a raised platform, lifted high the cross, “exalting” it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out “Kryie Eleison!” St Helena then commissioned a church to be built over the site. The church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated on September 13, 335. The feast of the finding and exaltation of the Cross was appointed to be celebrated annually on the following day. The basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is today revered as one of the holiest places on earth by Christians of all denominations.
Today the sign of the cross has become a universal Christian symbol. When people sneeze and cross themselves or athletes make a sign of the cross before or during play, we recognize them immediately as Christians. Ornamental crosses in the form of necklaces, broaches, earings, and the like are everywhere. A crucifix (the cross with an image of Christ’s body upon it) identifies a church as a Catholic church. Likewise, crucifixes in our homes serve as constant witness to the paradoxical truth that it is only by going through our suffering that we find liberation and new life. Where Christ has gone before us, we desire to follow. The cross, then, is not just a piece of wood or an historical curiosity. It is the ultimate paradoxical symbol, a summation of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ and a foreshadowing of our own destiny in Christ.
Jesus teaches us that the cross is a constant feature in our daily lives: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To take up the cross in this way we need to do more than wear a crucifix or hang one on a wall. To lift up the cross the way Jesus asks us to do becomes a way of life. It is not, as our tradition has long held, merely accepting self-denial and sacrifice. It is not about giving up something that is of value to me for the sake of God and the good of my neighbour. It is about loving ourselves enough to be patient with ourselves, to encourage ourselves, to accept ourselves as created in the divine image. As we love we find the real meaning of sacrificing for the higher good, yet paradoxically, we find ourselves not poorer, but richer. As we die to our ego, we discover that we have not lost ourselves, but rather have found our true selves.
Our role is, paradoxically, simple and difficult. It is simple because we are called to have faith in the unchanging love of our God—no matter what. No matter how frightened we might be sometimes. It is difficult because this goes against everything our culture and civilization stands for. Every day we are challenged to take a few moments, giving thanks to this God who loves us, giving praise to the God who saves us in Christ Jesus, asking that our faith may be stronger, releasing any failures or limitations, but most of all believing and trusting completely that God is saving us at every moment. The poet James Dillet Freeman wrote the following prayer during the horrors of WWII, and it is something that I offer to you on this special day:
The Light of God surrounds Us
The Love of God enfolds Us
The Power of God protects Us
and the Presence of God watches over Us
Where ever we are
And all is well!