Through Sorrow and Suffering, the Cross Triumphs
The middle of September is a lovely time of year. Children are back in school. The weather is beginning to change. The stores are stocked with Harvest and Halloween decorations. Pumpkin Spice reappears in the store fronts of coffee shops. Summer slips gently into fall.
The middle of September is also a difficult time of year for many. It draws to mind and heart the remembrance of loved ones who were lost. Memories of smoke rising, of the sirens of first responders, and of the dazed and broken hearted emerging from the rubble are dwelt upon. People recall where they were, what they were doing, when they heard the news or saw the events take place. The United States and the world changed in mid-September eighteen years ago.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, four planes crashed on American soil. Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The fourth came down in a field in Pennsylvania and never reached its target. Thousands of lives were lost. Countless others were affected.
The word “grief” seems hardly an adequate name for what was felt by millions in the aftermath. Shock, grief, disbelief, anger, doubt, anguish, sorrow of the acutest kind were felt and expressed. How to respond in the midst of this kind of devastation? Many responded with their time, their energy, and their efforts to recover survivors, to identify remains, to treat those wounded, to console those grieving, and pray with and for those directly affected. There are many powerful testimonies of the wonders worked in and amongst the rubble and wreckage.
There are accounts from the priests and religious on the scene who spent hours, days, weeks, months helping: saying Mass, hearing confessions, and talking to people. They accompanied people in their sorrow and in their suffering. In an interview with Catholic News Agency, Fr. Kevin Madigan and Fr. Christopher Keenan shared their stories from the 9/11 attacks in New York. They also shared the story of their friend and brother priest, Fr. Mychal Judge, who died as the chaplain for the New York Fire Department. He was listed as Victim 0001 – the first of the dead to have his death certificate processed.
Untold numbers of people were Christ’s hands and feet amidst the suffering of 9/11. But while we are all called to conform ourselves to Christ, priests have a special vocation and duty to be Christ’s hands and feet on this earth. The death of Fr. Mychal Judge, occurring in an attempt to recover people from the wreckage with his fire fighters, is a particularly poignant image of Christ’s saving death. In a similar way, the priests who lived to serve the survivors and the families of the victims are an image of Christ’s resurrection, an image of restoration and hope.
Another day in mid-September is celebrated with due solemnity, and also great joy and exaltation: the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. This feast is celebrated on September 14 – three days after September 11. We celebrate the full Paschal Mystery in the largest way during Holy Week and Easter, and indeed at every celebration of the Mass, so why does the Triumph of the Cross have its own feast day?
Partly, it commemorates the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena in 326 A.D. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated by her son Constantine, the Roman Emperor, on September 14 of 335 A.D. Several hundred years later, the True Cross was stolen by the Persians in 614. It was restored to Jerusalem and reinstated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on September 14, 629. So this feast celebrates the discovery and recovery of the True Cross of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.
Yet any time we celebrate the Cross, venerate the Cross, or gaze lovingly on a crucifix or cross at home or in a church – what is it that we are doing? We are calling to mind the suffering and death of Christ which is humanity’s access point to new life. The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross calls to mind both the immense suffering and the total victory of Jesus.
The second reading from the Office of Readings for the feast of the Triumph of the Cross is a discourse from St. Andrew of Crete. In his discourse, St. Andrew describes the cross as that “which drove away darkness and brought in the light.” Christ’s death drove away the darkness of man’s separation from God. It drove away the darkness of sin. It drove away the darkness of suffering. His death, freely suffered in love, paved the way for our salvation.
St. Andrew goes on, “Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.” This is why we can look upon an instrument of torture, agony, and death and see it as victorious. The cross is both the instrument of Christ’s suffering and the instrument of his victory. We look upon it now and see both the sign of suffering and death, and also the trophy won at the end of the battle. St. Andrew points out, “[the cross] is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world.” We can look to the cross and see both death and life. We can see both sorrow and hope.
Recognizing this does not strip the cross of its horror. It did not lessen the pain as Christ hung nailed to the cross. Recognizing the good that is brought out of suffering does not lessen the real impact of suffering, but it does spur on hope. There is still suffering in this world. Although Christ’s death and resurrection marked his definitive triumph over sin and death, the fullness of God’s plan is still unfolding. It is now the time of the Church, and she is no stranger to suffering. But she looks to the Cross and is spurred on by hope in her savior. We, the Body of Christ, must continually look to the Cross for consolation and hope in the midst of suffering whether it be on a large scale or our own personal suffering.
As we remember those who died and those affected by the 9/11 attacks, let us also remember the Triumph of the Cross. Let us take heart and be encouraged by this beautiful and wondrous feast. Let us love Christ more and more and unite our own wills to his own. Let us make these words from the Office of Readings our own, “God our Father, in obedience to you your only Son accepted death on the cross for the salvation of mankind. We acknowledge the mystery of the cross on earth. May we receive the gift of redemption in heaven.”