By Felix Carroll (Sep 14, 2016)
This wooden cross stands battered but indelible out at the very tip of Cape Cod's come-hither curl. And every time I visit it, it slaps me back to reality.
To my mind, this cross, at this place, is the perfect symbol for the challenge we are called to confront in this life. It's a challenge laid out before us each Sept. 14 on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. On this feast day, also known as the Triumph of the Cross, we honor the Holy Cross by which Christ redeemed the world.
The Cross — all crosses everywhere — challenge us to come to know Christ, to imitate Him in the virtues He practiced, in His humility, poverty, and suffering. Yet, as St. Francis de Sales wrote, "The wisdom of the Cross is wholly contrary to that of the world."
I recognize those words to be true, and that's one of the reasons I love coming to this place: It's contrary to the modern world of easy access and cheap thrills. The nearest road ends miles back. The only way to get here, other than by sea, is by laborious hike through compass grass, poison ivy, jagged rock, and thick sand. But the payoff is unsurpassable.
Every year I go to the Cape. Every year, I make this journey by foot to this cross. Every year, I take a photo of it. Through this cross I get a glimpse of the glory that awaits us when we unite ourselves to the Cross of Jesus. And I also get a glimpse of the rough path we must trod to achieve this glory.
This cross is rooted in a desolate land, just as Christ's Cross is rooted in the bone-dry barrenness of sin. Even as this cross is sandblasted by cruel winds, it rises undaunted just as the Cross of Christ cuts through the clutter, cacophony, and commotion of existence to point to the promise of everlasting life. I see the tiny little Cape towns across the water shimmering in the distance, and it reminds me of the chasm we build through our sinfulness and selfishness that separates us from closeness with Christ. I understand the distractions over there that keep us from focusing over here — on Christ. And yet all the while, this spit of land acts as a natural barrier protecting these bay towns from the worst of the sea's surges, just as Christ seeks to protect us from the worst that life doles out.
I visit this cross and I'm reminded of what's expected of me in this world. It reminds me that the Cross of Christ is where our transformation begins.
Saint Paul writes, "For if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united to Him in the Resurrection" (Rom 6:5).
The only way we can come to truly know God is by uniting ourselves with Christ on the Cross. To do so requires some heavy lifting. Jesus tells all would-be disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk 9:23).
It's fitting that this cross here is where land ends or begins, depending on your perspective. In truth, it's the end and the beginning. So, too, the cross of Christ is where life ends and begins. By asking us to deny ourselves and to bear the Cross, Jesus is saying that everyday we should die to ourselves in order that we may live in Him.
But what does bearing the Cross require?
Jesus tells us, through St. Faustina. She describes seeing Jesus standing before her, "stripped of His clothes, His body completely covered with wounds, His eyes flooded with tears and blood." He tells her, "The bride must resemble her Betrothed." Saint Faustina responds to this moment:
I understood these words to their very depth. There is no room for doubt here. My likeness to Jesus must be through suffering and humility (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 268).
We unite ourselves to the Cross — this means by which capital punishment was exacted, where man's worst tendencies seemed at first to triumph — when we forsake the barren sands of sin, when we repent and commit ourselves to Christ who became man in order to guide us back to God.
Jesus tells St. Faustina, "Most dear to Me is the soul that strongly believes in My goodness and has complete trust in Me" (Diary, 453.)
We unite ourselves to the Cross when we put the needs of others above our own needs, when we are selfless, as Jesus showed in His own life. Jesus tells St. Faustina, "When I was dying on the cross, I was not thinking about Myself, but about poor sinners, and I prayed for them to My Father" (Diary, 324).
We unite ourselves to the Cross when we love our enemies. Jesus tells St. Faustina to "have great love for those who cause you suffering. Do good to those who harm you" (1628).
Much is made of the suffering required to unite with Christ. But the thing is, we suffer anyway regardless of what we unite ourselves to. I defy you to find one happy person in this world who has successfully warded off suffering through drugs, promiscuous sex, money, power, or booze.
The Cross gives us a perspective on our sufferings. It reminds us of the big picture — that these sufferings and struggles of the world turn to trifles when compared to the glory that awaits us. Once we realize this, our crosses become light, or maybe it's that we've become strengthened.
Only through the pursuit of holiness are we on the one and only path to true, "unsurpassable happiness," as St. Faustina puts it (Diary, 593). Unsurpassable because it is the happiness that comes from knowing God.
"No greater joy is to be found than that of loving God," St. Faustina writes. "Already here on earth we can taste the happiness of those in heaven by an intimate union with God" (507).
One more thing about that cross out on the Cape: It's pared with the old Long Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse honks and flickers 24 hours a day. You can hear it and see it from far away. But you have to look, and you have to listen. God beckons us similarly. He's guiding us to the Cross, always, because it's where our misery meets His mercy.
And once those two meet, the rest is like a day at the beach.