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Edith Stein, Léon Bloy, and why we surrender to the cross

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Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 09/12/21

The call to surrender to Christ and take up the cross is the key to renewing the face of the earth.

Our discipleship will renew the world. Not in the sense that we are the cause of renewal. Jesus died for our sins once and for all. It’s his grace that renews the world.

But make no mistake, we are his instruments. 

St. Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, writes, “This is a serious warning cry: Surrender without reservation to the Lord who has called us. This is required of us so that the face of the earth may be renewed.” We, as disciples, must surrender to the Lord, surrender to the plans he has for us. Then and only then, will the thirsty, tired, and worn world have a bit of respite.

Jesus invites us to surrender again to him. He says to each of us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). To embrace the cross, this is surrender; this is authentic discipleship.

The signpost, not the end

The cross is not the goal, however. We Christians should not be mistaken for masochists. “The cross,” says Edith Stein, “is not an end in itself.”

She continues, “It stands on high and beckons one toward the summit.” The cross is not the thing we are longing for. We are longing for heaven, for union with God and the saints. The cross, however, is the weapon. It is the symbol that draws us near.

With our eyes fixed on the cross, we can follow Christ and seek after him.

But there is more. Jesus continues in the Gospel, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Edith Stein explains, “Christ gave his life to open to mankind the entrance to eternal life.” “Therefore,” she continues, “to win eternal life mankind is obliged to sacrifice that of earth.”

To surrender to God means to look past the goals and values of this world. The cross, the beacon of heaven, signals the way we must follow as disciples. It is a way of sacrifice, of renunciation. We must constantly be looking to die with Christ, so as to rise with him.

Two crosses

The French poet Léon Bloy, in his writings, contrasts two crosses. Bloy recalls that before St. Joan of Arc was led to her death, she asked for a cross to contemplate. A soldier fashioned a simple wooden cross for her out of two bits of wood. Joan prayed before this humble sign in her last moments.

Compare the wooden cross with another cross. The wooden cross of Christ, adored by the faithful on Good Friday, contrasts with the iron cross, then a symbol of military prestige, given to honor, as Bloy says, “murderers and incendiaries as reward for their crimes.”

Writing in the midst of Europe plagued by war and strife, Bloy professes his faith in the wooden cross. “The horrors of our day have an apocalyptic note which one can foresee will grow even more clear. But the iron Cross will in the end be vanquished by the wooden Cross, because this Cross is the choice of God and the sign of his love.”

We don’t need to embrace Bloy’s politics to embrace his understanding of the wooden cross. It is, as he says, “The Cross of paupers and of vagabonds, the tender Cross of old country roads, the welcoming Cross of the wretched, of the maimed, of those with bleeding feet, of tearful hearts, of those who have been bitten by the snakes of the desert and who are cured of their wounds by looking upon it, that Cross of misery and of Glory.”

This is the cross before which we surrender. The cross that is at once our burden and our freedom.

The cross in our lives

Holy Mass is the translation into reality of Jesus’ death for us. The Lord’s sacrifice on Calvary, in the Mass, becomes present to us here and now. To participate with devotion and fervor, to attend Mass and unite our hearts with the sacrifice of the priest, is to accept the cross and bring its graces into our lives as disciples.

Let us choose the wooden cross. The cross of surrender, the cross of Jesus, the cross of discipleship. Because when we embrace the cross, when we surrender to trial and suffering, when we surrender our fears, our hopes, and our dreams, then we are liberated. We are freed. And in freedom, we can renew the face of the earth.

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