The bell tower outside our university chapel is perfectly proportioned. Its shape is said to correspond to the Platonic “golden ratio” that the human eye finds especially pleasing. Nearly all of its parts are in harmonious relation to each other – nearly all of its parts with one exception. The cross on top of the tower is too big. The great cross draws attention to itself by its disproportionate, disconcerting size. Perhaps in doing so it is reflecting a truth about human life in the world. For even the most privileged, perfectly proportioned human life suffers the same apparent defect. The cross is too big. The amount of suffering and loss to be endured is too great, too jarring. It offends our sense of harmony. But for Christians, the Cross is not a defect. The Cross is the whole point. It is meaning. It is hope. It is salvation. Precisely the thing that makes a shambles of our life makes it matter. We know this isn’t reasonable. It seems to make a mockery of reason. It’s a mystery, but not one we hope to solve. No, it’s a mystery that we celebrate, every day, and particularly today in this Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross.
The Exaltation of the Cross it’s not an easy mystery. It’s a sign of contradiction. A paradox. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Reason alone cannot account for those moments that bewilder the intellect but utterly sooth the soul.” Our encounter with the Cross is such a moment for us. A moment when “paradox is the only basket large enough to contain the truth.” The great physicist Niels Bohr remarked, “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken inparadoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer.” For Catholics, the Cross is the ultimate truth about reality.
St. Paul lays it all out for us in his quotation from an ancient Christological hymn in our second reading. The eternally begotten Son of the living God emptied himself of glory in order to be incarnated as one of us, accepting even death death on a Cross to bring salvation to the world. Now, says Paul, we must follow his example. And when our spirits are afflicted by our own suffering, and by the petty humiliations that cause us so much anguish, when our patience is worn out by the journey, we lift our eyes to the cross on the bell tower the Cross on which the Son of Man is lifted up so that we do not forget the works of the Lord, and we are soothed. We are exalted, for we have life, through him.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”