Ave Crux, Spes Unica: Hail to the Cross, Our Only Hope.
I received a lot of advice in seminary. Some of it I’ve followed, some of it I haven’t. But the one piece of advice that I’ve followed very carefully is this: Don’t ever, for any reason, tell people you want or need something during a homily—because you’ll probably get it. If you tell people you’ve been missing your mother’s homemade chicken soup, ten pots of chicken soup will show up on your doorstep the next day. To be honest, I’ve been really tempted to say that Fr. Ken and I are running short on toilet paper. I’d love to see just how much toilet paper would show up on our front porch. Fr. Ken and I could also then figure out who’s been hording it. You could drop off your toilet paper and then go to Confession. It could be a two-for-one deal. We could call it “Wiped Clean.”
One of the most powerful experiences I had in seminary was our trip to the Holy Land in January 2016. On January 7th, we visited the town of Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. That morning we had Mass in a small church built near the spot where Lazarus had been buried. I remember it vividly because I had to cantor for that Mass, which was a terrifying experience. “Hey, Nick, do you want to sing for Mass this morning? Sure, where are we having it? At the tomb of Lazarus—no big deal.” I also remember it because of the cross that stood above the tabernacle in the church. At the base of the cross, in gold letters, were these words: Ave, Spes Unica. These words come from a Latin Hymn to the True Cross of Christ that was composed in the sixth century AD. The full phrase is: Ave Crux, Spes Unica. For those of you familiar with Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s College, you may recognize this as the motto of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. In English it means: “Hail to the Cross, Our Only Hope.”
“Hail to the Cross, Our Only Hope.” Why is the Cross our only hope? When we look to the Cross, we see upon it a man who is both fully human and fully divine. Because He is fully human, He can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:5). Because He is fully human, He knows the full range of human emotions. And we see that on full display in our gospel. Faced with the illness and death of one whom He loved, Jesus was “perturbed and deeply troubled” (John 11:33). Faced with the grave, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). In taking on these human emotions, Jesus shows us that they are perfectly normal responses to suffering and death.
It’s perfectly normal to be angered by suffering and death. Jesus was angered by them too. Twice it says that Jesus was “perturbed” (John 11:33, 38). The Greek word used there literally means “to snort with anger or displeasure.” And if you’ve ever heard someone snort with anger, especially if it’s your mom or dad, you know that you’re in for it. I’m sure many parents have been snorting with anger these days, and perhaps some kids have been as well. But the point is: Jesus was angry at death. He was angry that it hurt those whom He loved. Death was His enemy, and He came to destroy it.
It’s also perfectly normal to be anxious and worried by suffering and to be saddened by death. Jesus felt those same feelings too. Jesus knows the pain of suffering and death, and He came to suffer and die with us, so that we would no longer do so alone. That is why the Cross is our Hope: Because of the Cross, no one suffers alone, and no one dies alone. One of the great tragedies of this crisis is the inability of people to be with their loved ones in hospitals and other care facilities. If that’s you right now, I’d invite you to look to the Cross. Your loved one is not alone. Jesus is right there beside them, holding them closer than you ever could. Ave Crux, Spes Unica: Hail to the Cross, Our Only Hope.
But Jesus did not just come to suffer and die on the Cross to show solidarity with us. He also came to transform our suffering and death—to give them new meaning and new power. George MacDonald, whom C.S. Lewis referred to as his spiritual master, said this: “The Son of God suffered unto…death, not that [we] might not suffer, but that [our] sufferings might be like His.” Jesus’ suffering and death brought about our salvation. Period. Full stop. And that means that our suffering and death, if united to His, can also be like His. They can also be salvific: for ourselves and for others. In her Diary, St. Faustina recounts this:
In the evening, I saw the Lord Jesus upon the cross. From His hands, feet, and side the Most Sacred Blood was flowing. After some time, Jesus said to me, “All this is for the salvation of souls. Consider well, My daughter, what you are doing for their salvation.” I answered, “Jesus, when I look at Your suffering, I see that I am doing next to nothing for the salvation of souls.” And the Lord said to me, “Know, My daughter, that your silent day-to-day martyrdom in complete submission to My will ushers many souls into heaven. And when it seems to you that your suffering exceeds your strength, contemplate My wounds…Meditation on My passion will help you rise above all things”Diary of St. Faustina, Paragraph #1184
When faced with our crosses, it’s perfectly normal to feel angry, anxious, worried, and sad. But we cannot let that lead us to reject our crosses. To do so would be a great tragedy, a tragedy greater than even our original crosses. Because the Cross is salvific. By means of it the greatest good has been brought out of the greatest evil. We murdered God. And God used that to bring about our salvation: The greatest good out of the greatest evil. God can also bring great good, even the greatest good—our salvation, out of our crosses. For there is no cross, if united to the Cross, which remains just a cross. For Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). He can and will bring new life from our crosses if we let Him. So, if you are tempted to reject your cross, I’d invite you to look to the Cross. Your suffering can be salvific and bring forth new life, even as His was and did. What a tremendous source of hope. Ave Crux, Spes Unica: Hail to the Cross, Our Only Hope.