This weekend, Father Matt Nagle gave an amazing homily on the power and scandal of the Cross. With his permission, I present it below.
It reminded me of a claim by Leon Bloy about the rich which I think is too true of all of us: “the reality of His Cross, will horrify them. They want it all out of gold, bathed in light, costly and of little weight; pleasant to see hanging from a woman’s beautiful throat.”
The true Cross is scandalous, says Bloy: “The base and black Cross, in the midst of a desert of fear vast the world; no longer shining as in children’s pictures, but overwhelmed under a dark sky not even brightened by lightning, the terrifying Cross of Dereliction of the Son of God, the Cross of utter Misery and Destitution.” So that’s Bloy. Here’s Nagle:
Monday we celebrate our nation’s “red letter day”, the fourth of July, but I would like to begin this homily by speaking about another historical “red letter day”, albeit one that is less well known: October 28th, 312 AD. That is the date of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which spans part of the Tiber River in Rome. The Roman Empire was in the midst of something like a civil war, with rival factions fighting for control of the Empire. An individual named Maxentius had seized the city of Rome and claimed the title of Emperor, but standing outside the formidable defenses of the city was Constantine and his army. The evening before the two armies would meet in battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine suddenly had a vision: he a Cross of light and a banner with the Greek inscription, “in this sign you will conquer.” Constantine was not a Christian, but a pagan, yet he nonetheless ordered the cross to be painted on his soldiers’ shields. The rest, as they say, is history: Constantine routed Maxentius and his forces, and became emperor for the remainder of his life.
Constantine was a flawed human being, as we all are, and even after this profound experience before the battle of Milvian Bridge, he didn’t convert until he was near death; but there is a profound truth illustrated in this vision. In this, the sign of the Cross, you will conquer. It is a truth that is touched on in our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He writes: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a truth that is implicitly present in the Gospel, even though the Cross is never mentioned.
Let’s focus on St. Paul’s statement, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You know, it is difficult for us to pick up the irony, the profound paradox in this line. It is difficult for us because for centuries the Cross has simply been the symbol of Christianity. We wear the crucifix as jewelry, we have crucifixes on our rosaries, we hang the crucifix on the walls of our homes, schools, and churches. And we should do all that; we should keep the Cross of our Lord ever before our mind. But the one small downside is that we can become anesthetized to the true meaning of the Cross. In the Roman Empire death by crucifixion was simply the worst way to end your life and the absolute last thing you’d ever boast about. Think of it this way. Suppose someone you loved dearly, your son, brother, a close friend was condemned as guilty by the church as well as the state, was considered a villain of society by public opinion, and was publically executed in cruel and torturous way. Who would boast in that?
But St. Paul says “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is inviting us into the paradox that is the hallmark of our Faith. The Cross looked like it was the definitive defeat of Jesus of Nazareth. On Good Friday it looked as if He was the fraud the Sanhedrin, the chief priests and the scribes had always proclaimed Him to be. Yet on Easter Sunday His followers would’ve begun to understand that the Cross wasn’t a resounding defeat for Jesus of Nazareth, but rather it was His definitive victory, for it was on the Cross that He conquered the greatest enemy mankind has ever known or will ever know: sin, death and the devil. It was on the Cross that He offered the perfect sacrifice which atoned for our sins and won the grace that makes us the adopted sons and daughters of God. It was by His Cross and Resurrection that He won the grace which makes us a new creation, as St. Paul says further on in our second reading.
St. Paul even gives us a reason for boasting only in the Cross when he says that through the Cross “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” When St. Paul says “world” he uses it refer to the powers of sin, darkness and evil that exist in our society, both visible and invisible. Christ has conquered the world, and when we are united to Christ in prayer and the sacraments we become a new creation and we share in that victory.
And so we have always boasted in the Cross, and the sign of the Cross has down through the ages been a sign of that victory that Christ won for us. The sign of the Cross, is also, a gesture by which we make the Cross by touching our forehead, chest and either side of our shoulder is something that many of us learn when we are little children. It is something that we do without even thinking about it: We cross ourselves before and after we pray, in confession, in Mass, when we pass a Church or when we bless ourselves with Holy water, and on and on. Yet it is very easy for us to make the sign of the Cross in such a way that we hardly even think about the profundity of what we are doing.
St. Paul says in our second reading that he “bears the brand marks of Jesus in [his] body.” This is a reference to the branding of livestock, a practice we still do today, which allows us to know who an animal belongs to. Unfortunately, in ancient times it wasn’t unheard of for slaves to be branded as well. So, St. Paul in alluding to this custom, is declaring that he belong to Jesus Christ. And so when we are making the sign of the Cross we are declaring that we belong to Jesus Christ.
I mentioned the sign of the Cross was implicit in our Gospel. Jesus sends His disciples out to announce the Kingdom of God is at hand. We are all likewise called to go out and spread the Gospel, and one very simple, very easy way to do this is to make the sign of the Cross in public. The sign of the Cross is in a very real and simple way a declaration of faith. When we devoutly and reverently make the sign of the Cross we are professing our belief in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as our Faith in the redemption wrought for us on Calvary.
I’ll share a personal story about this, when I was in college I was in a fraternity for four years. The last year and half of my time there I went through this conversion and decided I would start praying before meals at the fraternity. We didn’t pray as a house, and I knew I needed to pray before I ate, so I would just quietly make the sign of the cross and say the prayer before the meal. Every once in a while a guy might make a comment but for the most part, guys eventually got used to it as just something I did and that was that. But towards the end of my time there several guys said they appreciated me praying before meals, and that they respected me for it. I don’t know that it sparked any great conversion but it was a very easy way to bring Christ to a frat house.
Now I don’t tell this story to hold myself up as any example of evangelization – I am not – but it does illustrate the power of this immortal sign of the Cross to touch others. In fact I would challenge or ask all of you to consider making the sign of the Cross before you eat next in a restaurant. By doing so in a very small way, in a very simple way, you are declaring your faith in the salvation Christ won for us on Calvary. Yes there are those who will tell us to keep our faith out of the public square, but we simply can’t do that. In the fact of this opposition let us resolve never to be ashamed of the Cross of Christ, let us never be ashamed of the Cross in which alone we boast; let us never be ashamed of this immortal sign in which He has conquered the world.