Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ave Crux Spes Unica

A few days ago, I read an article about the evolution of America’s celebration of Halloween. In the article, which included statistics and stories spanning more than a century, I learned that in 1965 Americans spent $300 million on Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy. As you might imagine, that number has only increased—exponentially—in the past fifty years. But what surprised me (and, I admit, bothered me), is that of the billions spent on Halloween, Americans today are spending as much on pet costumes as we did on all Halloween items in 1965. Yes, that’s right: $300 million.
 
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for celebrating holidays and I enjoy seeing a family pet dressed as a hot dog as much as the next person. But this bit of trivia says a lot about where we are placing our values as a culture. It also says much about what we view as necessity.
 
I’ve wondered what it would mean if, instead of buying Fluffy that clown outfit this year, the Smith family donated that money to a charity? It’s certainly no secret that churches, food banks, and all kinds of charitable organizations are struggling to keep outreach and assistance programs active. And the last several years have been especially difficult for nearly all non-profit organizations. When the economy tanked, people tightened their belts (and their purse strings) and gave less. Now however, people in general are in a better place fiscally, but the patterns of charitable giving that existed in the past seem to be just a memory.
 
As a culture, we do a great job self-medicating and distracting ourselves so that we don’t have to feel the full weight of the many hurtful and challenging things going on in the world around us. The threat of war on several fronts is looming larger and political and racial tensions are as high as they’ve been in many, many years. And sadly, religion has also become a weapon of choice in certain circles (and I’m speaking of events here at home). I think of Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the “opiate of the people,” and I find myself wondering what Marx would think of our world today—a world in which we are as drugged as ever, only this time with the opiate of our own choosing.
 
And then, in the midst of all this, September 14th comes around and we are asked to reflect on the Cross of Jesus and on September 15th, the sorrows of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. What’s more, this great Feast isn’t just the “Feast of the Holy Cross,” it is the “Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
 
Suddenly, on a day in the middle of September, our Faith tradition confronts us with the mysteries of life and death, of ugliness and beauty, of despair and hope, and of passion and resurrection. This Feast and what it celebrates stands in stark contrast to our tendency to try to avoid or escape.
 
In my prayers these past several days are the three Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary who were raped and murdered in Burundi last week. These women, Sister Olga, Sister Lucia, and Sister Bernadetta, had given their lives working to protect and support the mentally ill and children and women who were victims of domestic violence. Beyond this very disturbing tragedy, there is the ongoing suffering of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Obviously, these aren’t the only sad events taking place in our world, but I find myself thinking and praying about them in a particular way.
 
The First Reading of the Mass for this Feast is an unusual story from the Book of Numbers in which the complaining Israelites are bitten by serpents as they make their way unhappily through the desert. Complaining “against God and Moses,” the people begin to die from the serpent bites. When Moses prays for the people, God instructs him to cast a serpent in bronze and affix it to a pole so that, when the people who had been bitten looked at it, they would be healed. From the time of Jesus, this symbol has been understood as an image of Jesus, who was himself “lifted   up” on the Cross, becoming the source and sign of our salvation (cf. John 3:15).
 
"Moses and the Brazen Serpemt" by Augustus John
 
In a homily in April, Pope Francis shared this reflection:
Christianity is not a philosophical doctrine, it is not a programme of life that enables one to be well formed and to make peace. These are its consequences. Christianity is a person, a person lifted up on the Cross. A person who emptied himself to save us. He took on sin. And so just as in the desert sin was lifted up [represented by the serpent], here God-made-man was lifted up for us. And all of our sins were there… one cannot understand Christianity without understanding this profound humiliation of the Son of God, who humbled himself and made himself a servant unto death on the Cross. To serve…
The heart of God’s salvation is his Son who took upon himself our sins, our pride, our self-reliance, our vanity, our desire to be like God. A Christian who is not able to glory in Christ Crucified has not understood what it means to be Christian. Our wounds, those which sin leaves in us, are healed only through the Lord’s wounds, through the wounds of God made man who humbled himself, who empties himself. This is the mystery of the Cross. It is not only an ornament that we always put in churches, on the altar; it is not only a symbol that should distinguish us from others. The Cross is a mystery: the mystery of the Love of God who humbles himself, who empties himself.
 
Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire
in Ravenna, Italy
We have much in common with those wandering Israelites. Tired and frustrated from years of wandering in the desert and enduring real hardships, they wanted their lives to be different, despite the fact that God had promised them a new home and prosperity at the end of their journey. And, just like the Israelites, we are constantly being attacked by poisonous serpents, although many of those things that threaten our lives today are of our own making. But then, there is the Cross, a sign of hope and promise, reminding us that death and suffering have been transformed. And so we trust that the sufferings and deaths of those African missionaries and Iraqi Christians have meaning and that something beautiful can come out of the greatest tragedies.
 
But we are also being asked to look at our own priorities because we are a people of the Cross. We do this through prayer. We also do this by making sacrifices that help us to reorient our lives and rediscover what is truly necessary for our own health and the good of those who are entrusted to our care—our families and friends, the sick, the poor, and the homeless. Ask the difficult questions. Skip the new pet costume this year. Give to that charity you’ve been meaning to send a donation to. Turn off the TV and computer and read something life enriching. Place a crucifix in your home as a reminder of the gifts and responsibility you have received. Remember that the Cross is, in many ways, our great inheritance and it is something that we all share.
 
Ave Crux Spes Unica: Hail, O Cross, our only hope.

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