Today we Catholics celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. To some, this celebration seems to be unreasonable, or even a distortion of Christianity.
For one thing, Catholics seem to contradict the words of Christ, for he said that he came into this world that our joy may be made full (John 15:11). Even more, Catholics seem to be contradicting the person and example of Christ. Instead of being joyful Christians, we seem to have a twisted fascination for the gruesome and grotesque. Despite the white-washed walls of many a modern "worship space," a son of the Church can be easily recognized for he cherishes realistic portrayals of his Lord's humiliations; he prefers to kiss a crucifix than an empty cross; he believes in and venerates the very wood upon which God hung. Seeing this, some are bound to ask: isn't this Cross-veneration a little morbid? Are not Catholics in some way frozen in time, as if Jesus did not triumph over death and hell, as if He were not at this moment in heaven, reigning as the King of kings and Lord of lords? Why, after all of these years, is the picture of the Man of Sorrows still more popular than that of the laughing Jesus?
A thorough research into the sources of a Catholic's love for the cross would reveal that devotion to the cross of Christ goes back further than nineteenth century French spirituality; it is earlier than Trent, earlier than the Rhineland mystics, earlier than St. Augustine. What is known about the origin of this feast places it in the early half of the 4th century, but love for the cross is earlier still, suffusing even the Gospel writers. After all, they devoted more space to narrating the events that immediately preceded and included the Crucifixion than any other event in Jesus' life. St. Paul also shares the blame, for he famously said that he would preach nothing but the cross of Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2). As for Jesus, he predicted his Crucifixion and assured us that he took up his cross willingly, for he had come "not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
What these holy men, and God Himself, tell us is that the cross is a symbol of God's love, for it was the instrument of our salvation; it is holy because God's blood flowed down upon it; it is effective because He is powerful. This is why, on Good Friday, Catholics behold the wood of the Cross and, one after another, venerate it with the gesture of a lover. That is also why we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross.
We venerate the cross for another reason; this reason, too, is derived from Our Lord and his apostles. Not only did Christ tell us that He was to carry His cross — He commanded us to carry ours (Luke 9:23). St. Paul obeyed his Master's word and went further, for he claimed to have been crucified with Christ, to live the very life of Christ, who loved us and gave Himself up for us all (Gal 2:20). This is the secret to the Church's exaltation of the cross and the secret to every saint's love of it: by the cross, we are joined to our Lord, sins are forgiven, death is overcome, and our future glory is promised.
Knowing the great joy that comes from the Cross, the Church with her saints has, for the length of her existence, exalted the Cross. The early martyrs, from St. Stephen onward, rejoiced to suffer with and for Christ; the early theologians, in their own way, rejoiced in the cross through their writings. Thus, St. Methodius of Olympus (d. 311) said:
[T]he cross, if you wish to define it, is the confirmation of the victory, the way by which God to man descended, the trophy against material spirits, the repulsion of death, the foundation of the ascent to the true day; and the ladder for those who are hastening to enjoy the light that is there, the engine by which those who are fitted for the edifice of the Church are raised up from below….
Even in our time, the saints have recognized the joy that comes from the Cross. St. Josemaría Escrivá recognized that the "unmistakable signs of the true Cross of Christ" are "serenity, a deep feeling of peace, a love which is ready for any sacrifice. . . . And always — and very evidently — cheerfulness." Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, in a similar vein, taught the poor and dying that "Suffering, pain, humiliation — this is the kiss of Jesus. At times you come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss you."
In light of the testimony of Christ Himself and so many of his holy followers, we can be sure that it is not unreasonable to exalt the Cross, it is no distortion of the faith; rather, when we exalt the cross, we build up our faith and magnify the greatness of the Lord, for by that sign we will conquer and live and be joyful!