holy cross sermon for the fourteenth sunday after pentecost, year a, september 14, 2014

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show by what death he was to die. (John 12.31-33)

Last night I was sitting in this space, listening to Doug Burr perform haunting settings of texts from the Psalter. One of the verses that he repeated was “Surely God is good to Israel.” As he was singing it, I was looking at the crucifix over our altar, and thinking of how Jesus IS, in a real sense, Israel – and thinking of the cosmic irony of the goodness of the Lord to his people – to Israel – being fulfilled on the cross.

Scripture speaks of the cross, and therefore we speak of it, as a token of God’s VICTORY. I am a member of a priestly fraternity called the Society of the Holy Cross, and our motto, taken from the legend of the emperor Constantine, is “In hoc signo vinces” – under this sign you will conquer – speaking of the cross. We may be used to speaking about the cross in terms of God’s victory. But its difficult to say precisely in what the victory of the cross consists.

When you shuck it all down to the cob, only the eyes of faith can see anything triumphant in the desolation of the cross. So where IS the triumph of the cross? In what does it consist? How does God conquer under this sign? How are we supposed to conquer under this sign?

Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out…” The death of Jesus on the cross constitutes the judgment of this world, and the casting out of its ruler (which means Satan). In a Good Friday sermon a few years ago at St. Peter’s Basilica, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, used the work of Rene Girard, among whose disciples I count myself, in commenting on the dynamic power of the cross, by which the world is judged, and Satan is cast out. Father Cantalamessa said:

In 1972 a famous French thinker launched the thesis according to which “violence is the heart and secret spirit of the sacred.”[2] In fact, at the origin and center of every religion there is sacrifice, and sacrifice entails destruction and death. The newspaper “Le Monde” greeted the affirmation, saying that it made of that year “a year to mark with an asterisk in the annals of humanity.” However, before this date, that scholar had come close again to Christianity and at Easter of 1959 he made public his “conversion,” declaring himself a believer and returning to the Church.

This enabled him not to pause, in his subsequent studies, on the analysis of the mechanism of violence, but to point out also how to come out of it. Many, unfortunately, continue to quote René Girard as the one who denounced the alliance between the sacred and violence, but they do not speak of the Girard who pointed out in the paschal mystery of Christ the total and definitive break of such an alliance. According to him, Jesus unmasks and breaks the mechanism of the scapegoat that makes violence sacred, making himself, the victim of all violence.

[In the Gospel] The process that leads to the birth of religion is reversed, in regard to the explanation that Freud had given. In Christ, it is God who makes himself victim, not the victim (in Freud, the primordial father) that, once sacrificed, is successively raised to divine dignity (the Father of the Heavens). [In the Gospel] It is no longer man that offers sacrifices to God, but God who “sacrifices” himself for man, consigning for him to death his Only-begotten Son (cf. John 3:16). Sacrifice no longer serves to “placate” the divinity, but rather to placate man and to make him desist from his hostility toward God and his neighbor.

Christ did not come with another’s blood but with his own. He did not put his sins on the shoulders of others—men or animals—; he put others’ sins on his own shoulders: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

Can one, then, continue to speak of sacrifice in regard to the death of Christ and hence of the Mass? For a long time the scholar mentioned rejected this concept, holding it too marked by the idea of violence, but then [he] ended by admitting the possibility, on condition of seeing, in that of Christ, a new kind of sacrifice, and of seeing in this change of meaning “the central fact in the religious history of humanity.”

* * *

Seen in this light, the [the cross of] Christ contains a formidable message for today’s world. It cries out to the world that violence is an archaic residue, a regression to primitive stages and surmounted by human history and—if it is a question of believers—a culpable and scandalous delay in becoming aware of the leap in quality operated by Christ.

It reminds also that violence is losing. In almost all ancient myths the victim is the defeated and the executioner the victor . [3] Jesus changed the sign of victory. He inaugurated a new kind of victory that does not consist in making victims, but in making himself victim. “Victor quia victima!”, victor because victim, thus Augustine describes the Jesus of the cross.[4]

The modern value of the defense of victims, of the weak and of threatened life is born on the terrain of Christianity, it is a later fruit of the revolution carried out by Christ. We have the counter-proof. As soon as the Christian vision is abandoned (as Nietzsche [and others abandoned it]) to bring the pagan back to life, this conquest is lost and one turns to exalt “the strong, the powerful, to its most exalted point, the superman,” and the Christian is described as “a morality of slaves,” fruit of the mean resentment of the weak against the strong.

Our task as Christians is to align ourselves with the cross, both as individuals and as a community – to align ourselves, as God has done in Christ, with the weak against the strong. We must be so given to God in Christ that we can sincerely recognize ourselves as God’s own possession. And here is another aspect of the cross’s dynamism, because on the cross God gave himself totally to us, that we might be divine with his own divinity. In Christ we come to know the truth about God, that he is total self-gift, total self-donation. He holds nothing back. He keeps nothing for himself, but pours out his life for us. But this means that to receive God and to become divine, we too must become self-gift, in union with Jesus, and in fulfillment of his word: “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” (John 14.3). Where is he? The place of his triumph, his victory, his reign within this world, is the cross. Surely God is good to Israel – to his people – on the cross.

But the secret of the cross, discernible with the eyes of great faith, is that in his total self-gift, Jesus destroys the distinction between “mine and yours” – in his sovereign refusal to be self-possessing. He gives himself totally on the cross, and if we allow ourselves to be appropriated by that act of supreme self-gift, we find ourselves caught up and taken into the sovereign destruction of the “mine / yours” distinction. We – our selves, our souls and bodies – become living sacrifices, but in the same movement, we also become lords of all creation. And the end of violence, the Kingdom of God’s peace, the final smashing of the shields and the weapons of war, takes place for us together in the Church, which is the crucified Body of Jesus. As Paul said, “in one Body, through the cross.”

So let us lift high the cross, the banner of our triumphant king, and let us make St. Paul’s words, in another place, our own words: “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren…”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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