Gifts, Crosses, and Hiding in Boxes: A Homily on the Cross

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By Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap.

Author’s Note: These are the notes I used to prepare for the homilies given at Sacred Heart, Yonkers this weekend.

We’ve all seen it happen – it’s one of the classic gags in comedy. The presents are opened on Christmas. Dad takes hours putting together complicated gadgets so that everyone is happy with what Santa has brought them. And then, all the kids play with the boxes. Forts and castles are made – a particularly large box becomes a car or a jeep. You know the drill. In my house, growing up, it was something similar: we’d get some new GI-JOE contraption and my father would spend time attempting to get the decals just right, working hard not to break the cheap brittle plastic clamps that needed to connect to each other. And then, my brothers and me would find the most insignificant GIJOE figure and fight over it until there were tears – or worse.

My parents would throw their hands up in the air: “don’t you realize what you have here?” they’d ask.

Do we really understand and realize what we have in the Cross? Do we, to make the point even finer, understand the gift that we have in the Cross? The quick answer, of course, is that we can’t totally understand it: we really don’t understand this gift. We never could: the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – his life lived in the shape of a cross – can never be boiled down to simple theology or a nice turn of the phrase.   And all too often, we find ourselves living a Christianity that simply turns its face from the cross: it thinks of Jesus as a good moral teacher, but nothing more. Or, we paint a picture that is uncomfortable with Good Friday, skipping right from the first course on Holy Thursday to the empty tomb!

Just as my brothers and me didn’t know a great gift when we experienced one, and instead settled for something watered down, so will our lives be if we don’t understand the truly staggering gift of the Cross in our lives.

When we listen to the reading this morning from Paul, the reality of the gift of the Cross is brought right to our faces. Indeed, the Word becomes a human being, emptied of all glory and all power, but not of his identity as the Beloved. Make no mistake: this is not a case of one minute being God and not the next. No: Jesus, as the Word made flesh, remains God, yet does the unthinkable. He empties out, gives up his power. At the conclusion of his life – at the very climax – instead of hopping down off of his Cross, Jesus does the opposite. He lets all of the sins of humanity wash over him.

The gift, then, is two-fold: upon the Cross, Jesus changes what it means to think of God and what it means to try to be human.

Jesus, the God-man, in ascending to the cross, refuses to grasp: refuses to take what isn’t his. Indeed, confronted with stupidity, greed, religious opportunism, jealously, hatred, and pride, Jesus doesn’t grasp what is rightfully his, but rather further empties himself. He is raised up on the cross: but unlike the fake serpent which reminded the Hebrews of their past, Jesus on the cross reminds us of past, present, and future. On the Cross, raised high up above us, Jesus reminds us that God loved us into existence, still loves, and will continue to do so. What is more, Jesus makes clear to us the staggering reality that we do not believe in a God like so many other gods, remaining an arm’s length away from us. Instead, we believe in, worship a God who right here with us, suffering our every indignity, one who knows exactly what it feels to be up on the cross and abandoned. Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes when we pretend a cardboard box is a jeep: he climbs in with us to help us drive.

And yet, Jesus does more than teach us about the closeness of God. Jesus also shows us – gives us the gift – of seeing what it means to be truly human. On the cross, Jesus doesn’t grasp for what isn’t his: he doesn’t fight for equality with God that he could claim. Instead, he, just as Paul says, empties himself, takes the form of a lesser in order to be with us: especially those who are the least. Jesus teaches us that to be really human – the best Christian versions of ourselves – we cannot live our lives with closed fists, holding tightly to what we think ought to be ours. No: only be opening our hands (and in some cases even stretching out our arms) can we truly come to that which God calls us.

Brothers and sisters, as we celebrate this feast of the Cross, let us spend this liturgy thanking God for the gift of his closeness; and then, upon leaving here, share the gift of our humanity: not grasping but gathering those we meet.

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