Every 14th of September, the Catholic Church, celebrates the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It is also known as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The history of this celebration centers on the story of how Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was supposed to have found the relics of the cross where Jesus died. Upon finding it, she decided to dedicate a basilica on the place where the relics were found. The day of the dedication was said to have been September 14. Hence, today, many centuries after that discovery, the Church still celebrates the Triumph of the Cross.
What Do We Celebrate?
I have always considered the name given to this feast day as an irony of sorts. Who in his right mind would want to celebrate the triumph of the cross — an instrument of death for the Roman Empire? Who would want to exalt an instrument of ignominy and shame?
Our modern world, surely does not celebrate seeming defeats. What we want to celebrate are moments of victory; we tend to glorify great performances. Yet, we are also inspired by stories of people who overcome great odds and come out victorious in life. While we do not celebrate the odds per se, we take cognizance of the fact that great triumphs often arise from seemingly insurmountable odds.
What exactly do we as Catholics want to celebrate every time we gather for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross? Are we sadists who want to celebrate an instrument of death? Or are we truly hope-filled people, who can see beyond the pain and shame of the cross?
The Victory of Obedience
The cross of Jesus, first and foremost, speaks about the victory of obedience to God’s will. We remember how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonizingly bargained that the cup of suffering pass him by. At that moment, he perhaps, had visions of his slow and painful death on the cross. And upon seeing his future death, Jesus was seized with fear and apprehension. It was fear that led Jesus to plead to his Father for a “Plan B” in attaining man’s salvation.
How many times do we tremble in fear when we realize where God is calling us next in life? Thoughts of unworthiness, shame and even guilt plague our minds. We tell ourselves that we cannot possibly do what God wants of us. We bargain for him to allow us to choose another path. We earnestly plead with him not to lead us to roads where we dare not tread.
This was what exactly Jesus did at Gethsemane. But at the end of his prayer, Jesus accepted the Father’s will — “Not my will but yours be done,” he says. And with that utterance, Jesus finally comes to terms with the cross. He embraces it. He lets go and lets God do the work of Salvation through him.
The Saving Power of Forgiveness
The cross of Jesus does not only speak about the triumph of obedience; it also shows the salvific power of forgiveness. We remember that it was in the cross that Jesus was able to forgive all those who persecuted him and put him to death.
The power of forgiveness is clearly seen when at the last moment of life, one of the thieves hanging by his side asks to be with him in Paradise. There, in the midst of all the hate surrounding them, Jesus promises the thief eternal life. In the midst of death, Jesus offers him forgiveness and opens up to him the gates of Paradise.
While for most of the Romans, the cross had become a symbol of people who lost their chance at life, Jesus transforms it and makes it a symbol of a second chance and redemption for the one of the thieves. The triumph of the cross is a celebration of the victory of redemption over condemnation.
The Choice of Love
The Triumph of the Cross is a celebration of the victory of love as a choice. All throughout his life, Jesus had preached the wonderful idea of loving one’s enemies; of being able to love others as one loves himself. In the last Supper, he encouraged his disciples to love one another as He has loved them. These are wonderful teachings.
We all know, though, that in the concrete reality of everyday life, the commandment to love is better said than done. Yet when Jesus is finally left hanging on the cross, he makes the ultimate choice to love. In the cross, Jesus shows that his words are not empty. In the cross, he shows that love is not a mere feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment, In the cross, Jesus proves that love has to be freely chosen. And once it has been chosen, it will bear fruit in the salvation of others.
This, then, is the Triumph of the Cross. In the cross, Jesus refuses to bow down to the face of hatred, of condemnation and of self-fulfillment. In the cross, he proclaims that love, forgiveness and obedience can bring about a victory in life and it is a victory needs to be celebrated.
The Meaning of the Triumph of the Cross
What does these mean for all of us?
The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross invites Christians to find victory in the daily crosses that they encounter in life. In front of the cross of making difficult and life-changing decisions, we are invited to go let go of our hesitations and fears and let God take charge. In front of the cross of life’s mistakes, the triumph of the cross invites us to find victory in the power of forgiving and allowing ourselves another shot at life and experience redemption. In front of the cross of dealing with difficult people, we are invited to choose love and realize that love does not necessarily mean liking another person or desiring to be with them always. The choice to love can also mean the choice to respect differences and thus be able to celebrate life’s diversity.
Christians celebrate the Triumph of the Cross — a symbol of death and pain — because on one such cross there hung the Savior. There lies the real reason for celebrating the triumph of the cross. The cross becomes meaningful only when we find Jesus hanging there. Without Jesus, the cross remains merely a symbol of pain and suffering. With Jesus, it acquires a new meaning of hope, love and life.
The cross of our life’s daily burdens and difficult moments, remain burdens and difficult moments, without having a sense of faith. With faith in Jesus, they become moments of redemption; they become opportunities for growth; they become moments of true discipleship.