The Strange Triumph of the Cross

A call to embrace spiritual poverty for Christians celebrating the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross this weekend.

The author G.K. Chesterton was right: Christianity is the religion of paradoxes. This weekend one of those paradoxes is put before us as we celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

What a strange feast this is! The cross is all too often domesticated by its familiarity in our Christian faith. We see it in our buildings and wear it on necklaces. But it cannot be romanticized. The cross was the instrument of torture used by the Romans to execute Jesus.

Crucifixion was a degrading, public form of execution, the intention of which was to deter other would-be criminals from challenging Roman authority. To glory in the triumph of the cross — a public symbol of shame and humiliation — would have been utterly unthinkable for Jesus’s contemporaries.

But for us Christians, Jesus’s cross and his death upon it are the source and summit of our faith. The cross reveals who God is and whom God chooses. Remember, in the time before Jesus’s birth, the expectation of the Messiah was strong in Israel. Many Jews expected a mighty hero who would set them free from Roman rule. But Jesus didn’t bring political liberation for a certain people, achieved through military campaign. As Jesus tells us in this weekend’s gospel, he destroyed death forever and restored life for everyone; and he did this through his death on the cross.

As Christians, we are called to embrace spiritual poverty in order to break down the social evil of material poverty.

Jesus, who was born in poverty and obscurity far from the political and cultural centers of power, redeemed the human race. Paul tells us his letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.”

Let’s be clear: Jesus did not redeem the world in spite of his poverty, but because of it. St. Paul says elsewhere: “Jesus was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

But what does it mean to become poor? The father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez, provides a helpful way of understanding what it means to become poor for the poor. He explains that poverty can be understood as both material poverty — the social evil of not having enough to sustain oneself and one’s family — and as spiritual poverty — making oneself totally available to the will of God. As Christians, we are called to embrace spiritual poverty in order to break down the social evil of material poverty.

Make no mistake, embracing spiritual poverty does not let our consumeristic fetishes off the hook. If we are to open ourselves fully to the will of God, we must reject the materialism and superficiality that dominates our lives and embrace a new way of living, loving, and encountering the face of God in others.

Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolas aptly diagnoses the evils of materialism when he describes the “globalization of superficiality.” He puts it this way: “When . . . the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow. . . . When one can become ‘friends’ so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks — and if one can so easily ‘unfriend’ another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation — then relationships . . . become superficial.”

As Jesus’s death on the cross has shown us, living a life of solidarity with those living in poverty requires sacrifice.

Thus, embracing spiritual poverty requires solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are living in material poverty. Without such solidarity, our lives and our relationships will remain superficial. We must embrace Christian poverty. As Gutierrez says, “Christian poverty, as an expression of love, is solidarity with the poor and is a protest against poverty.” Such solidarity is not a glorification of material poverty, but rather, expresses an openness to God that allows us to encounter Her suffering in the lives of our brothers and sisters.

As Jesus’s death on the cross has shown us, living a life of solidarity with those living in poverty requires sacrifice. It requires us to sacrifice our own desires — material and otherwise — so that God’s desires can be fulfilled through us.

But today the idea of sacrifice can seem trite. We oftentimes associate sacrifice with losing something. But in truth, sacrifice is an investment that pays dividends far exceeding the initial investment. In sacrifice, we learn the art of love. This isn’t a love that is merely sentiment. It is a love that is rooted in reality.

The cross of Jesus invites us as a society to live this love that is rooted in reality. This love transcends creed or faith. It’s an invitation to create a nation where we are poor for the poor and where we embrace those who suffer. If we ignore the needs of those who suffer in our communities — the immigrants without rights, the workers without just wages, and the students crushed by debt — we fail to heed God’s call to become poor. That’s wholly unacceptable for a Christian, especially in the midst of an election year.

So now is a good time to ask ourselves how we can better live in solidarity with the poor and protest poverty. In doing so, we will find a new experience of love that makes us and our nation whole.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.