Design image

The triumph of the Cross

St Clare of Assisi
St Clare of Assisi: ‘If you suffer with Him, you shall reign with Him.’
By Fr Paschal M Corby OFM Conv

On the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on 14 September, the Church in her sacred liturgy meditates on the account from the Book of Numbers when, in answer to the people’s murmuring against Him, the Lord sent among the people fiery serpents, whose bite brought death to many.

Acknowledging their sin, the people of Israel asked Moses to intercede for them before God; and in response the Lord instructed Moses: “Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Num. 21:8).

In the Gospel of the same feast, Christ proclaims: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’ (Jn 3:14-15).

In a homily for the Feast, the late John Paul II drew these readings into a neat synthesis. Just as the fiery serpents brought death to many in the desert, so the human family had received a deadly bite from the ‘ancient serpent’ at the beginning of history; injecting “a satanic venom – the venom of original sin – into the souls of the first man and woman. And from that time onward, man’s history on earth has been burdened by sin.” [1] 

Moses’ fashioning of the bronze serpent is, therefore, interpreted as a figure, or type, of the salvation won by Christ when He was lifted up on the Cross – saving us not merely from physical death, but from Satan’s power, the death of sin and alienation from God.

The Israelites were instructed to ‘look at’ the bronze serpent and they would be saved. In a similar fashion our contemplation of the Cross is the constant realisation of our salvation in Christ.

“Whoever believes in him,” wrote John Paul, “whoever sees in this Cross and in the Crucified One the Redeemer of the world, whoever looks with faith on the redemptive death of Jesus on the Cross, finds in him the power of eternal life. By this power, sin is overcome. People receive forgiveness of their sins at the price of the Sacrifice of Christ. They find again the life of God which had been lost by sin.” [2] 

It has long been a Christian tradition to venerate the crucifix, in our churches and in our homes, as the symbol of our redemption. But the saints also remind us that the cross is a fitting object for our prayer and contemplation. To this end, in a letter to St Agnes of Prague, St Clare of Assisi advised her sister to ‘gaze upon’ the crucified.

In gazing upon the Cross, we contemplate the depths of God’s love. Christ crucified reveals the self-emptying, outpouring love of God, humbling Himself of His glory to assume our humanity – making Himself ‘contemptible’, as Clare puts it, for our salvation.

The Cross, therefore, reveals God as a God of relation – of One given and poured out for us. Christ Himself insists, greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). The Cross draws us into this friendship with God. To gaze is not merely a process of seeing or knowing; it is to be drawn into the object that we see – to become one with the object of our contemplation.

We see in the Cross, therefore, what we are called to be – to be imitators of Christ; to love as He loved (cf. Jn 15:12); to take up our cross and follow Him (cf. Mt 16:24), sharing in His passion so as to share in His glory.

In identifying ourselves with the Crucified, uniting our sufferings to His perfect sacrifice, we share in Christ’s triumph and become co-redeemers in the victory of His Cross. Convinced of this, St Clare exhorts her sister (and us):

If you suffer with Him, you shall reign with Him.If you weep with Him, you shall rejoice with Him.If you die with Him on the cross of tribulation, you shall possess heavenly mansions in the splendour of the saints,

And, in the Book of Life, your name shall be called glorious among men. [3] 

Fr Paschal M Corby OFM Conv is Assistant Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Kellyville.

[1] John Paul II, Homily for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 13, 1988

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

« Return to Catholic Outlook September 2010