20 September 2015
Homily on the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross
“Mom, would you let me off a little way down the street from school?” “Dad, stop whistling that tune!” It’s not unusual for teenaged children to be ashamed of their parents. After all, parents like things that aren’t cool any more. They’re so…well…so much older and out of fashion. (Of course, that doesn’t apply if Dad grows a hipster beard, right?)
What happens when someone is ashamed of someone they know? It’s usually a case of two worlds colliding, with the embarrassed person in the middle. To use the teenaged kid example, there’s the world of home and there’s the world of school. Each of them plays by really different rules and follows really different goals. The kid torn between the home-world and the school-world is like the chameleon on scotch plaid.
Shame was a real issue for the people who first received Mark’s gospel. Some of them had a Jewish background; others were Gentiles, especially Romans. For both groups, a cross was an embarrassment.
To the Romans and Gentiles, the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. It would be like having a gallows, a gurney, or an electric chair at the heart of Christianity. In Rome there’s an anti-Christian graffiti from the third century. It shows a donkey on a cross and bears the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
To the Jews, the cross was even worse. It represented a divine curse, for Deuteronomy said, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” In the Jewish revolt, whole towns would surrender rather than see one of their citizens be crucified.
So it’s not hard to see why Christians might be ashamed of Christ and of his word—the word of the cross—in the first centuries. It was a message that just didn’t fit.
We’re at a time once more when the Cross of Christ doesn’t fit…a time when, once again, we’re confronted with the question: “Am I ashamed of Christ and his Cross?”
We are ashamed of the Cross when we buy the narrative that Jesus is just another great religious teacher…a guru, but not God in flesh. Just as during the days of his earthly ministry there were many prepared to admit him as Teacher, or Prophet, but not as God—so also today. No one bats an eyelid any more when the media refers to “Prophet Muhammed”—but just try saying “Christ God,” and see where it gets you!
We are ashamed of Christ when we endorse our passions and affirm them instead of fighting against them. “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its desires,” St. Paul tells us. Yes, we should be concerned about new definitions of marriage and of sexuality—but the confusion in our culture just objectifies the confusion in our own hearts, homes and lives.
I know it isn’t easy to fight against the passions. But here, too, we can be ashamed of Christ and his Cross when we try to fight them in our own name and strength and power, instead of by the name of Jesus and the strength and power of the Cross.
I have a friend from high school who just this past week celebrated his 28th year of sobriety. He wrote, “Yesterday…I have been clean and sober for 28 years. That does not mean that I have been without difficulty and issues, but it does mean that I was better equipped to handle what came my way. The first thing I remember was God in my life, because I cried out to Him and my obsession to drink and get high was immediately lifted. That was and still is today the very most important part of my sobriety—that I gave my life to the Lord...”
We have much to be ashamed of, dear friends in Christ: the many ways and many times we have acted as if he is other than the center of our life…the times we have surrendered ourselves to our passions instead of fighting them…the times we have tried to fight them in our own power and wisdom and strength.
But let us never be ashamed of Christ our God and of his holy cross. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be the light for our feet and the lamp for our path. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be our weapon of peace and our trophy invincible. When the passions assail us, when our sins trouble us, when death itself looms, let our one boast be in the Cross of Christ. Let us never, never, never be ashamed of Christ our God, who loved us, and gave himself for us!