The feast (solemnity, for us!) of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross sounds like a happy occasion. The antiphon for the Office of Readings for Sunday of Week I of our Psalter is set for Psalm 1, and it says “See how the Cross of the Lord is revealed as the Tree of Life.” That’s wonderful. And (depending on which version of the legend you read) when St Helena discovered the Cross in Jerusalem, she knew it by its power either to raise the dead or heal the sick. That Cross was made into 3 pieces: one for Jerusalem, one for Constantinople (her son’s new imperial capital), and one for Rome. Our practice of the Good Friday veneration of the cross comes from the Jerusalem practice: with the real Cross and not (as in virtually every other church in the world) an imitation. It’s all about rejoicing in the life that comes from it.
But it’s too easy to forget the price by which that life comes to us. To be crucified was to be condemned to a hideous and barbaric death. Even the evil English practice of hanging, disemboweling, and quartering was at least over in a few minutes of agony: crucified victims might linger for hours or even days. Remember that when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate (Mark 15) for the corpse of Jesus, Pilate was surprised (after 3 hours or more) that Jesus was already dead. Remember that the Jews didn’t want bodies on the cross over the Sabbath (John 19) and so asked that their legs be broken so they could die more quickly. We cannot imagine.
Our view of the crucifixion is too rooted in our view of crucifixes, most of which are overly devotional or coldly neutral. In any case, they are too antiseptic. The majesty of (for example) the crucifix of San Damiano in Assisi that spoke to St Francis shows a majestic Jesus, dead yet with eyes wide open, bleeding yet not suffering, gazing toward St Francis (and us) with a half-smile on His lips and no contortions of His body. That isn’t how it was.
St Paul gets very poetic in suggesting that he has been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20), but in fact Paul, as a Roman citizen, could never have actually been crucified. This was a death reserved for foreigners, slaves, and traitors. It would be like my saying I have been hanged, drawn, and quartered with Christ. It won’t happen. It cannot happen.
But what can happen is our realization that we are (as Church) metaphorically on that Cross with Jesus, especially in these days. Will we let our sufferings somehow be redemptive? Will they bring true conversion (not just empty words of “I’m sorry”) to us and help to bring true and deep healing to others so terribly wounded? Will we remember that if we are in some sense being crucified with Christ, it is our collective behavior as a Church that has brought us to that cross? It’s not just pedophile priests and protective bishops—it’s the sins of each of us that need to be repented (again, not with words but with real metanoia, changing of hearts and minds and behaviors). Are all clergy (read: me) somehow complicit in the clericalism that allowed these evils? Probably. Are laity complicit in tolerating and sometimes even encouraging an atmosphere of clericalism that honors clergy as somehow superior or special or qualitatively different and worthy of all deference? Probably. We all need to be disciples, and if we clergy cannot hold ourselves properly accountable, laity must not allow that lack of accountability.
There are some church-folks who think the answer is to return to practices and behaviors pre-Vatican II. I recently saw a Mass in which all women came to Holy Communion in veils, all received the Sacrament on the tongue, kneeling at a communion rail. Most of the Mass was in Latin. Will this solve the problems? I answer a resounding NO—even in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report the abuse went back 70 years: 20 years before Vatican II. We cannot go backward; we must go forward, following Jesus and His Cross, and hearing again His words: “Take up your cross and follow Me…”