We celebrated two important feasts this weekend in the Church calendar. Friday was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross (also called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross). Tradition has it that this feast was first celebrated in the seventh century to commemorate the return of a relic of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem. The relic had been captured by the King of Persia, and was retaken by the Roman Emperor Heralius in 629. When returning the Cross to Jerusalem, the Emperor wore his finest imperial robes and jewels in procession. However, when he reached Mount Calvary, he found himself mysteriously unable to continue forward. Zacharias, the Bishop of Jerusalem, mentioned to the Emperor that he did not look very much like Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary. So the Emperor changed into humble penitential robes, after which he was able to continue.
Of course when we speak of the "Triumph of the Cross" we are referring to more than a seventh century battle and the return of a sacred relic. We mean the ultimate triumph of Jesus' crucifixion. This is one of the aspects of Christianity that confounded many early on (and still does today). How can the cross, an instrument of torture, execution, and humiliation, a symbol of cruel oppression, be the instrument of triumph? The Messiah, the Anointed One, is supposed to come to save us. He is supposed to come and lead us to victory over our enemies, liberate us from oppression, and establish a new and everlasting kingdom of peace and justice. He cannot very well do that stripped, beaten, and nailed to a tree. A messiah is not someone who would accept humiliation, who would be spat upon, who would be mocked and scorned before being put to death. This is not how a savior is supposed to act.
But that's exactly how the Savior acts, and that is what scandalized so many people -- even Peter, the leader of the Apostles. We read of this in today's Gospel (Mk 8:27-35). Jesus is giving His followers forewarning about what is to come. He, their leader, teacher and master, will suffer. He will be rejected. He will be persecuted. He will be killed. Peter, who loved Jesus very much and who just before had proclaimed Him to be the Christ, would have none of it! He would never rebuke his friend in public, so he takes Jesus aside and tells Him not to speak this way. And Jesus' reply? "Get behind me, Satan!"
He tells Peter that this is how men think, not how God thinks. For God sent the Messiah to save us, not from some temporal enemy, but from the eternal enemy. He came not to preserve us in this current life, but to prepare us for a better one. Indeed, He tells Peter, "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake... will save it."
This is the true Triumph of the Cross, and what Peter had yet to discover. God Himself would suffer greatly and even die on our behalf, to take upon Himself the punishment for our transgressions. He would take all that hardship and pain and use it as the means of redemption for all mankind. And He would come out on the other side glorified and exalted, giving us a taste of what awaits us if only we follow Him.
And how do we follow Jesus? Yesterday the Church celebrated the Feast of Sorrows of Mary. Like the feast that preceded it, this can sound like a contradiction to us. Don't we think of Mary as the holiest of saints, and therefore the most joyful and happy? Don't we sing, "Be joyful, Mary, heavenly queen?" She is closer to Christ than any human being, so why would she be sorrowful?
It is precisely because she is closer to Christ than any other human person. As Jesus' mother, she loves Him more than anyone. That is why His suffering would cause Mary more pain than anyone. For love is a double-edged sword. When you love someone, you open yourself to both the greatest joy and the greatest sorrow. Their joy makes you joyful. And their pain causes you pain. Love, in this way, makes one extremely vulnerable. This is another paradox of the Christian faith, for we do not normally think of God as being vulnerable, but our faith teaches us that God is Love.
Loving someone means having compassion when they are suffering. When two people marry, they vow to love the other "in good times and in bad, in sickness and health." There are no contingencies with love. And so while we celebrate Christ's Passion on Sept. 14, we celebrate Mary's com-passion on Sept. 15. The word compassion means "to suffer with." Mary, conceived without original sin, full of God's grace, suffered more at the foot of the cross than anyone, because she loved more than anyone.
Her compassion is our example. This is the lesson of Christ, when He tells Peter today, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." What does it meant to "take up our cross?" It means that we must be ready and willing to suffer as Christ suffered. But more than suffering like Christ, we must be willing to suffer with Christ. We must have compassion.