When did we last reflect on the sacrifice of Christ? Last Good Friday? Generally, we meditate on Christ’s Passion during Lent and Holy Week. That is logical, of course, since Lent (and Holy Week in particular) helps focus our attention on Christ’s gift of His body for us on the cross and in the Eucharist and how his Resurrection allows us to rise with Him on the last day. In short, we focus on the mystery of the Redemption.
However, I find myself carrying crosses even after the Lenten and Easter seasons have passed. So there is comfort in listening to Christ’s urging: Take up your cross, yoke yourself to me, so that we might carry our crosses together (see Matthew 11:28-30). We need the cross beyond those forty holy days.
The Church knows her children. As a mother concerned for her little one’s well-being, the Church nourishes our devotion to the cross. Thus, she instituted three feasts spread throughout Ordinary Time. Each of these feasts hearken back to the mysteries of our Redemption: the events of the Easter Triduum and Season. If Lent and Holy Week, by focusing our gaze on our crucified Lord, prepare us for the great feast of Easter, then the three feasts of Corpus Christi, the Exaltation of the Cross, and Christ the King remind us that we are people of the cross. Each of us suffers, rises, and is glorified by God through the Easter mysteries, and these three feasts remind us that we are an Easter people.
The Church spreads the three feasts almost evenly throughout Ordinary Time. Corpus Christi falls in late June, soon after the Easter season ends, beginning this time of numbered days, like a liturgical countdown. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross falls on September 14, around the time we prepare for Autumn, for shortening days and growing darkness. Lastly, just one week before we begin preparing for Christ’s coming in Advent, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, a shout of joy before we quiet ourselves beside the manger with Mary and Joseph. Together, these feasts mark a miniature Triduum, providing a breath of Easter in our long liturgical journey.
For thirty years of His life, Christ walked unknown in the world, a mere child, then a man, a worker like so many of His contemporaries. Then came His ministry, the words preached, the miracles wrought, the hearts transformed. He established His Church on the rock of Peter, and then entered triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and was dead and buried on Good Friday. Rising on Easter, He was with His followers for forty days before ascending, but not before promising to be with them, to be with us, until the end of time.
How, though, is He with us? In spirit? Yes, whenever two or three gather in His Name. In word? Yes, thankfully, in the Gospels and other writings in Scripture, for He is the Word of God. If only He were here physically, His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. . .
And yet He is here. On that night, before Hell had its way with His Body on the cross, He gave His Body to His disciples gathered in an upper room. Before nails, whips, and a lance spilled His Blood onto the dusty ground, He poured His Blood out for His disciples.
The promise of Holy Thursday matches the promise of the Ascension when read in light of the great Eucharistic discourse in John 6. This discourse, one of Christ’s greatest speeches and (in the eyes of the world) His grandest failure, as many “walked with Him no longer” (John 6:66), calls us to eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood. It is not a suggestion. It is a requirement for us to live in Him, to share His life. What better way to recall those saving words than with a feast!
So the Church instituted Corpus Christi, a second Holy Thursday. The feast reminds us that the Lord, who ascended to the Father on Ascension Thursday, just a few short weeks before the feast of Corpus Christi, is waiting for us right now, here in a golden tabernacle or bursting forth, like the sun after a rainstorm, in a monstrance. We adore Him here in hiding and in doing so renew our love of Him.
The Exaltation of the Cross
We Catholics are a people of apparent defeat, deemed doomed to die by worldly powers. We have faced persecution upon persecution; our list of martyrs is immeasurable. The world thought us dead under Rome, under the barbarians, under our own Christian brothers, under pagan tribes, under Communists and Fascists alike. We have suffered “the long defeat,” to borrow Galadriel’s phrase in The Lord of the Rings.
So they condemned us to die. So also our Savior.
Yet in that thought, in that memory of Christ crucified, blood shed to the last drop, we see what J. R. R. Tolkien termed a eucatastrophe, a good disaster. Through the cross Christ triumphed! His enemies, and the Enemy, thought Him theirs. But He who is God cannot be stopped any more than we mortals can stop a wave during a hurricane.
So we celebrate on September 14 the feast of Christ’s triumph through the Cross. Those who hated Him thought they could remove Him with their roughly hewn wooden cross. He, ever the carpenter, showed them the real way to work with wood.
The Fathers of the Church liked to point out that Christ redeemed the whole of human nature through the cross. In agony, Christ felt every pain we ever, and could ever, experience. His friends abandoned Him. His enemies slandered His Name. Every inch of His Body burned with pain. He even felt the seeming abandonment of the dark night of the soul.
Yet through this suffering, Christ sanctified our pain, our own feelings of darkness. We would do well not merely to reflect on what Christ suffered on the cross, but also to see how He triumphed through the cross, and what we have gained through His sacrifice. We are like Mary Magdalen who, finding the empty tomb, turned to find the Lord waiting for her. So also He waits for us.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is not simply one rehashing Good Friday. It mixes and blends perfectly Good Friday’s sorrow, Holy Saturday’s longing, and Easter Sunday’s unstoppable joy. And what of us who face those who seek to destroy or ridicule us out of existence, as they did our Lord? As historian Warren H. Carroll reminds us, after every Good Friday, Christ and His Church always rise from the dead.
Christ the King
“So you are a king?” Pilate’s words to Christ, placed as part of this great feast’s Gospel reading, should be ours as well (John 18:37). The punctuation is wrong for us, however. We must replace Pilate’s puzzled question with an emphatic exclamation! “You are a king!” We shout it together as one Church in the twilight of the liturgical year. Every single day of the year, from the First Sunday of Advent, through Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time, answers Pilate’s question with a resounding “YES!” However, it is a yes that even we don’t fully comprehend, appreciate, or rejoice in. Hence this beautiful feast.
Christ is King, humbling Himself to be born of a woman, not through abuse, as we see in pagan myths, but with her consent.
Christ is King, leading and teaching, providing spiritual and physical healing and feeding, judging rightly and fairly, condemning evil and embracing good.
Christ is King, heir to David’s dynasty, a thousand years old at His birth, with all of the political rights, honors, and privileges that kingship bears.
Christ is King, conqueror of His Enemy through pure goodness. In their battle Christ let Himself be slain, and in doing so slew Death itself.
Christ is King, ruler over all of Creation, most rightful heir to the promise given to Adam.
Christ is King, having risen from the dead, having firmly established His Church, having returned to sit at the Father’s right hand.
Thus we rejoice! Thus we sing Alleluia as on Easter, as on the first day of the week, when Light broke through darkness to reclaim His kingdom.
The Church calls us to reflect on the mysteries of our Redemption throughout the year, at every Mass, but especially in the Easter mysteries and on these three great feasts. Let us celebrate them with the honor due to our Lord’s great sacrifice.