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Lent 2011

The Transforming Power of the Cross

Every season of Lent we journey with Jesus up to Jerusalem, to participate and compassionate with Him in His sufferings and death on the Cross. Jesus does not want to carry the Cross alone; He calls us and has given us the grace and the privilege to share with Him in His redemptive work. He asks us to bear Him the Cross, first of all for our own sanctification and perfection, and then also for the salvation of others. “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:24). Our personal way of the Cross and how we bear it determines our relationship with Christ. Therefore, we want to understand the Cross and see the wisdom and love of God which stands behind it, in order that we may with greater courage, fortitude and love follow Christ along the royal way of the Cross.

The Cross comes in many forms and shapes. Often, especially when under the weight of a heavy and enduring Cross, we question God and ask why we must bear this suffering, this injustice (we scarcely see them as a share in the Cross!). We consider it a burden, a punishment, a disagreeable admonishment or just plain incomprehensible. We are, after all, good persons—at least no worse than our neighbor who [seemingly] does not have such a heavy Cross. We think we do not deserve such a loss; we cannot bear such constant humiliation; we cannot live with so much pain, etc. But every Cross that comes our way questions us: “Do you love Me? Are you with Me, will you help Me? ” Jesus needs souls who are willing to accept and offer up their daily sacrifices for souls. And when God wants to draw a soul more closely to Himself, He binds her first to the Cross. For the Cross purifies, transforms, and prepares us for the “weight of glory”.

The Purifying and Expiatory Power of the Cross

The Cross comes from love and is a sign of God’s love for us. “‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by Him. For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:5-7) Though we practice our faith and frequent the Sacraments, perhaps even daily, still, like others, we have many hidden faults and attachments which hinder our advancement towards God. As St. John of the Cross noted, no matter how small the thread that binds the bird, it is still enough to hinder it from flying to the heights (cf.Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk I, ch. 11). When God sends us a Cross, it may be for us a wakeup call, a means of severing our attachments or of purifying our intentions, an opportunity to make reparation or to find healing.

Like the good vine dresser, the Father “prunes” us by means of the Cross, “that [we] may bear more fruit” (cf. Jn 15:2). We need to accept and transform this Cross into grace and merit, by allowing it first to open and transform our hearts. Then our power of intercession will be increased and we may love more freely and with detachment. And with this love we can help others to open their hearts for God and accept their Cross as well. For when we allow ourselves to be purified, Our Lord says, “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’” (Is 58:8-9).

Learning to Say “Yes” to the Cross

In order to learn how to accept the Cross and transform it into merit and grace for ourselves and others, we must look first “to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:2-3). Like Jesus, Job is also for as an example of unconditional acceptance and submission to the will of God under the weight of the Cross: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). It is not easy to accept the Cross because we see it as suffering and defeat; it manifests our weakness from which we recoil. Yet the Cross has a divine, transforming power hidden within it, the conquering power of love.

The innocent Lamb was slain on the altar of the Cross, and yet from the immolation of the victim new life burst forth: the power of evil was destroyed by the power of self-sacrificing love. The Cross, then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears. It is indeed an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen. (Benedict XVI, June 6, 2010)

Since the fall of Adam the world has been immersed in the great struggle between good and evil. We witness the destructive power of sin which destroys families, oppresses the innocent, shatters countries and governments, ruins lives and violates children. There is no merely human power that can overcome these evils, only the power of God and His grace.

For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. (Rom 8:3-4)

Jesus took the sins and evils of all generations upon Himself and died to them upon the Cross. Now we can conquer the evil within and around us through the power of grace which flows from His Cross. We can tap into this power of grace, both for ourselves and for others, through prayer, the Sacraments and by lovingly bearing the Cross in daily life.

Our Lord asks us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The Cross can be accepted and offered in expiation not only for our own sins, but then also for those of others, for our children, our family and friends, for priests, etc. Job in the Old Testament rose early every morning and offered sacrifices to God saying, “It may be that my sons have sinned and blasphemed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5). In the same way, God asks each of us, “Where is your brother, your sister, your child?” (cf. Gen 4:9). We may not even know it when a dear one is suffering severe temptations against the faith or purity, but Our Lord may be asking us to accept a trial or Cross precisely for him. Only in heaven will all the consequences of our choices here on earth become clear. As Our Lady told the children in Fatima, many souls are lost because there is no one to pray and sacrifice for them.

Filial Trust in God

We need not be afraid to enter into this school of the Cross. For through the Cross we see the transformation of God’s justice into mercy: the just Judge of the Old Testament becomes our loving Father in the New Testament through the crucified love of Jesus. Jesus Himself takes away the “sting of death” and the “sting” of every Cross. “He who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of Life” (Jn 8:12). He is here with His grace and gives us the inner strength to bear our Cross which comes from the Heart of the Father. “For the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). We must only accept it from His hands with faith and child-like trust. In order to do this, we must meditate on the word of God, for within it Jesus has given us an example, which by frequent meditation strengthens us in our daily struggles. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn  from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light” (Mt 11:28-30).

Moreover, Jesus gives us His Sacraments which refresh and nourish us. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are purified and strengthened in our battle against temptations, especially against those which we specifically mentioned in Confession. In the Eucharist we drink from the wounds of Christ on the Cross and are nourished with His very Body. Jesus tells us, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). The victory of the Cross, eternal life, lies already inherent in the Eucharist. Through Holy Communion, we commune with the Cross of Christ, and with His Spirit who gives us the strength to bear the Cross. Indeed, in the Eucharist we receive Christ, victim and glorified!

Moreover, Jesus gives us His Mother Mary as model and intercessor on our personal way to God. “She herself by enduring her tremendous griefs with a strong and confident spirit, more than all the faithful of Christ, the true Queen of the Martyrs, ‘filled up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ…for His Body, which is the Church’ (Col 1:24); and she has attended the Mystical Body of Christ, born of the torn heart of our Savior, with the same mother’s care and deep love with which she cherished and nurtured the Infant Jesus nursing in the crib” (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 2291). Let us look then to Mary and follow her to Calvary, in order to learn from her how to accept and even embrace the Cross with love.

Mary, Mother and Example

Beneath the Cross

Mary is the privileged one, the Immaculate, “full of grace”; yet she was the first to follow her Son in His carrying of the Cross. Because she loved Jesus more than anyone else, her heart was pierced seven times with the sword of sorrow—or one could say, seventy times seven times. Her sufferings began much earlier. For three days she searched with anguish for her lost Child. And when she accompanied Jesus in His public life with the other women, serving His needs and the needs of the Apostles, how many times did she see the crowds pick up stones or attempt to throw Him from a cliff. How often did He go off at night, and she wondered whether His “hour” had come or if she would ever see Him again. All these smaller trials prepared Mary for the great trial of the Via Sacra. Already the night before, during His agony in the garden, Mary felt her helplessness and inability to console Her Son in His hour of trial. How she would have wanted to be with Him, but she was not called.

At the condemnation, every last hope of an acquittal extinguished, and she had to give to the Father her “yes”. She saw her Son beaten and tortured with scourges and thorns, yet these very men she was called to take to her heart and forgive—without hesitation. She prayed for them and sought their salvation. And on the way of the Cross, how grateful she was to Veronica for wiping Jesus’ face; yet she certainly felt the sting of her own renunciation in not being able to do even this small service for her suffering Son. Others could approach Him and help Him, like Simon and Veronica, but she could only offer her helplessness and renunciation. Finally, beneath the Cross as she watched her Son in His last agony, He bequeathed to her the Church: “Woman, behold your son” (Jn 19:26). Though she loved John and in him all the disciples of Christ, nevertheless, what loneliness she must have felt: in place of the Master she received the disciple, in place of the Lord, she received the servant. But with child-like confidence and strong in the love of God, she accepted all out of love. Veiled from the eyes of men, Mary walked the great way of expiation. We must follow her on the little  way, with our daily trials and difficulties, offering them up with faith and fidelity.

Generosity towards God

In this season of Lent, let us offer God an even more generous love. The angels want to pull us away from all our idle and worthless pursuits so that we may once again seek God with all our heart. They help us to recognize and accept the Cross in all its forms, great or small. Our little acts of voluntary penance also prepare us to receive the Cross with docility. The Church offers us the traditional works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as we enter into this more intense time of interior conversion.

The daily little works for God are the most important foundation for all the great deeds, for with God how  we do it counts first, with what attitude, with what intention, with what strength of will. Accepting little humiliations in silence, performing little acts of service hiddenly, renouncing the second serving of our favorite dish—all these are little ways of working towards God’s Kingdom. St. Paul reminds us, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:4). None of these little Lenten practices will break our health or damage our good name, but they will purify our intention, wear away our laziness and deflate at our pride. The angels want to burn away these stains from our soul like dried chaff so that new life can grow for God and with God, as a blessing for all.

Most especially this Lent, let us learn to embrace our Cross. For in accepting it as the will of God for us, bearing it (not dragging it!) with courage, fidelity and humility, we will become a light and blessing for those around us. We must not get discouraged by the Cross, for Our Lord tells us, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My victorious right hand” (Is 41:9-10). Jesus does not abandon us, but bears the greater weight of our Cross Himself. Mary, with her tender, maternal love watches over us and leads us to the refreshing waters of prayer and the Sacraments. And the holy angels enlighten and strengthen us, that we may continue unhindered along the way to God. In this way, at Easter we will sing the victorious praises of Christ and His Cross, and share also in its victory: “For if we have grown into union with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a Resurrection like His” (Rom 6:5).