September 14, 2014
In 1978, 3 years after the communists took over the South of Vietnam, we were still not allowed to perform any religious function in the seminary. One day we decided to have a secret Mass for seminarians only and I was one of them. As the Mass was about to begin, a fully armed soldier entered the room. The bishop turned around to see what was causing the gasps, whispers and commotion. He saw the soldier who seemed to know the situation. With a friendly smile he made a big sign of the cross. The bishop smiled in return, nodded, and turned back to the altar to begin Mass.
After the Mass the soldier explained that even he worked for the atheist government, but he was also a pious Catholic and what he could take with him to the battle was the sign of the cross. Twenty five years later, I met that soldier in Calgary. He survived the war (the war between Vietnam and China) and escaped from his country in order to enjoy religious freedom.
Today we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross. The cross is the central of every liturgical celebration. In John’s gospel, the cross captures both moments of suffering and victory. John did not use the word “crucify” but he used the word “lift up.” Three times Jesus talked about his death on the cross as being lifted up. When he is lifted up, he will show the people who he is, and he will draw the people to God. So the cross is a great sign of his victory and a great sign of God’s love for us. But it is still a cross with all horrible consequences: suffering and death.
When you come to a Catholic church, you can see a lot of crosses around. How many crosses do we have in our church? We do not only have crosses in our church, but the first religious act we learned as a child probably was to make the sign of the cross on our body. The sign of the cross showed that the soldier in our story was a Catholic. It is also a sign that you and I are Catholics.
Making the sign of the cross reminds us that Jesus died on the cross for us sinners and saints. By his cross and resurrection he has conquered sin and death. We proclaim his victory which brings us salvation.
The sign of the cross signifies the dedication of our entire being, body and soul, to the service of God. It is a simple and beautiful profession of faith: faith in the one who brought victory to us through the cross.
But as I said, the cross is still a cross with all horrible consequences: suffering and death. It means that when the Lord chose the cross as a path to victory, we, his followers have no other way. The Lord did not take suffering and death away, but he has given suffering and death a new meaning. Suffering is always real. Pain is always real. When a person is in pain, there is no denying of his or her discomfort. A person’s pain and response to that pain are deeply personal. Suffering is made more tolerable through friendship, caring and hope. In dealing with the cross, suffering and death, we need a hunger for life, a thirst for healing. This hunger and thirst somehow rises from relationship with the risen Lord who got victory through the cross, because only the Lord Jesus Christ can make sense out of suffering and death. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can give us the final victory even when we have to go through the Cross.