Lent is a struggle of a few weeks, a battle of a lifetime, and a fight for eternity. In previous columns, I spoke of the nature, purpose and instruments of Lent. Now I wish to speak of the Cross of Christ, which is the center of Lent and the gateway to Easter.
What do we see when we look at a Cross? Many years ago, I was driving with my business partner, who was Jewish, and his five-year old daughter. We stopped at a traffic light, and the little girl pointed out the window and said, “That building is a church!” Her father asked, “How do you know?” She replied, “Because it has a ‘T’ on top.”
A ‘T’ on top. Through no fault of her own, the Cross to her was just a shape, a shape in the form of the letter ‘T’. She looked at the Cross, but she did not recognize it. I want to suggest that we, like her, but for different reasons, might look at the Cross without recognizing it. I fear that the Cross has become so familiar that we are no longer shocked by it. Can the Cross become merely part of the furniture of a chapel? In the popular culture, the Cross has become a piece of jewelry, a decoration. In the popular culture, people look at the Cross and see nothing.
But the Cross of Christ should be shocking! It should be, as Saint Paul wrote, a scandal, a stumbling block. The pagans could scarcely imagine that the divine could love us so; the moderns would reject that we need such moral remedy. The Cross would force the pagans to reconsider love; the Cross would force the moderns to reconsider sin. And our own present culture the Cross as invisible, irrelevant or as neutered. In other words, it regards the Cross as something that may be handled safely and without consequence. But it should take daring to lift high the Cross of Christ! When we see the Cross, we should be startled and frightened, as if we found a ticking bomb or a child playing with a loaded gun. We must be startled and frightened and awestruck as we look upon the Cross—for the Cross of Christ has unimaginable power. During this season of Lent, may we come to look at the Cross of Christ and see it as if for the first time.
What can we see when we look at the Cross of Christ? We have to learn to look at the Cross again and again, seeing more and more each time that we turn our eyes and hearts and minds to it.
Let us look at the Cross and say, “That’s me—that’s what the world has done to me.” We need to be able to look at the Cross of Christ and see our own pain, our own suffering and disfigurement. We have to look at the crucified Lord and see our own wounds. We must identify each of our wounds and ask God to touch them with His healing. In this way, the Cross can become for us a remedy for sin—the sin of others and our own sin as well.
If we repent of our sin without asking God for healing, we will almost certainly commit the same sins again and again. Repenting without getting healing for those wounds which are so often the roots of sin is like trimming the tops of weeds and then becoming surprised that the weeds grow back. You see, sin more easily takes root in places where our hearts have been wounded. If we want to be free of our habitual sins, we must find healing for our hearts.
We are not likely to receive healing if we do not ask for it. The first step for the healing of our hearts, which is essential as a remedy for sin, is to look at Christ crucified and then to see and name our wounds so that we may offer them to God.
Let us look at the Cross again and say, “That’s me—and I did it to myself. This is what I look like when I disfigure myself by sin. I, the nearest neighbor whom God has given me to love—I have wounded and mangled myself by my sin.” We have to look at the Cross and see the awful truth. I behold the crucified Christ and see that I am destroying myself by my sin.
Let us look at the Cross again and say, “That’s Jesus—Son of God and Son of Mary. He is the Christ of God—and I did that to Him.” The Cross announces and displays what my sin does to love and innocence. Tearing, shredding, piercing, defiling. The Cross reveals the portrait and sculpture and result of my sin.
Let us look at the Cross again and see God’s stubbornness, His unshakeable will to love and save me. No matter how much hatred and malice I heap upon him, beyond the scorn of my indifference and lukewarmness, despite the brazenness of my ingratitude, the Cross proves that God will not give up on me. The Cross shows that no matter how low I go, no matter how far I have fallen, the roots of the Cross go even deeper. The Cross shows that God is willing to reach underneath me. His suffering and death prove that Jesus would rather go through Hell for me than go to Heaven without me. The Cross proves that God can take the very worst that the world and I can offer and arise victorious.
That’s what we can see when we look at the Cross.
What shall we do in the presence of our crucified Lord?
Let us be shocked—shocked to know that I—with my sin—I have murdered love.
Let us remember—remember that the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ always go together as one event.
The story of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ shows that my sin has murdered love and that love has overcome sin.
Let us cry—cry tears of sorrow and tears of joy. It is right that we cry before our crucified Lord, for as the poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Am I stone, and not a sheep, that I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy Cross, to number, drop by drop, Thy blood’s slow loss, and yet not weep?” Yes, let us cry in the presence of our brokenhearted God.
Let us, in the presence of our crucified Savior, behold the Blood of Jesus.Let us meditate on the awful fact and awesome power of the Blood of Jesus. Do we marvel at the offering of the shed Blood of Jesus? Today I cannot help but recall these words of the poet George Herbert: “Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine, which my God feels as blood, and I as wine.”
In the Jewish temple, blood served two purposes. First, blood purified. Sin is death, life is in the blood; sprinkled blood washed away the deadly stain of sin. Second, blood was also used as a bond. The blood of an animal was used to seal the relationship of two parties bound by covenant. The covenant between God and Abraham was sealed by an animal’s blood. The covenant between God and the Jews was sealed by the blood of the Passover lamb.
So, what about the Blood of Jesus? Look into His Heart torn open by a spear and see the Blood which is life flow from the source of life itself. See the Lifeblood of God that wipes away the curse of sin and death. And behold the Blood of Jesus Who is the Lamb of God; see His blood that binds us forever to His Father.
The Blood of Jesus protects us from despair. It would be easy to look at the Cross and cry out, “What have we done?” But we must stay at the foot of the Cross, behold the crucified Christ, and cry out, “Look at what God has done for us!”
In the end, the story of the Cross is a love story. God loves us with a crucifying passion. In the presence of the Cross may we celebrate God’s undefeated love for us.
In the Byzantine Church, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the bishop gives each worshipper a sprig of fresh basil, so that he may carry with him throughout the day a reminder of the sweet victory of the Cross.
This Lent, let’s contemplate the Cross with a humble and grateful heart, with the words of the Prophet Isaiah on our lips: “By his stripes, we are healed.”
When I write next, I will discuss how a worthy living of Lent can help us to extend true mercy to our neighbors. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.