I’d like to take a look at a short prayer you’re all familiar with. In fact, you may not even think of it as a prayer, but it is. I’m speaking of the Sign of the Cross, and my excuse for talking about it today is these words from the gospel you just heard: “. . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life.” When Jesus says “lifted up” He is referring to the Cross, not the Resurrection. So let’s examine this simple, basic Catholic prayer for a moment. I think you’ll find there iss more to it than you suspect.
First, whenever we make the Sign of the Cross, with our without Holy Water, we call down God’s blessing on ourselves. It used to be the custom to do so whenever one passed a Catholic Church or a funeral procession, but whenever we do it we are reminded of our dependence on God and our need for His blessing, always and everywhere.
Second, the Sign of the Cross marks, we might even say brands, us as belonging to Christ. We have been bought by Him, and not with any diminishable sum of silver or gold but with His precious blood beyond all price.
Third, the Sign of the Cross is the briefest possible Profession of Faith, stating in a few words that we believe in one God who is also three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Fourth, by marking ourselves with the Cross, we recall our Lord’s words, “Take up you cross each day and follow me.” Cross-bearing, suffering, sacrifice are not options for the Christ-follower, rather essentials of the Christ-life we are meant to live.
Fifth, the cross, as the word suggests, is made up of two pieces of wood at cross-purposes, like crossed swords; hence the cross is called “a sign of contradiction,” and we are reminded that if we are not at odds with the world, then we are not as Christian as we ought to be.
Sixth, the two pieces of the cross recall the Two Great Commandments our Lord taught concerning the two essential relationships we have in this life. The vertical beam, pointing upwards, recalls our relationship to God, whom we are to love with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. The horizontal beam recalls our relationship to each other and our call as Christians to love one another as we love ourselves, indeed as Jesus loves us.
Seventh, the cross is a vivid reminder that, as our relations and responsibilities to others increase, so must our relationship to God lest we topple, just as the heavier the cross-beam is on the cross, the sturdier the upright must be. We cannot be to others all we are meant to be without a strong relationship to God.
Eighth, the cross is the great sign of God’s love for us. As Jesus hangs on the cross He says to us, “This is how much I love you, no matter what you have done wrong. This is what I am willing to do that we may be together forever.”
Ninth, the cross reveals dramatically the true nature of sin. It says, “This is what sin does. It crucifies God.”
Tenth and finally, Mother Teresa of Calcutta found in the Sign of the Cross a summary of our Christian lifestyle, which must be made up of prayer, poverty of spirit, zeal for souls, and devotion to Mary. How does she get all that from this simple gesture?
We begin, she said, by saying, “In the name of the Father,” recalling the Our Father and Jesus’ teaching and example of constant communion with the Father in prayer.
We continue by saying, “and of the Son,” and remember that the Son emptied Himself of majesty and divinity becoming a poor human being, born in a crib, dying on a cross, lying helpless in our tabernacles. He is the model of humility and poverty of spirit.
Next come the words, “and of the Holy Spirit,” the Soul of our souls, as the Spirit has been called. The gifts of the Spirit are given to us not only that we may become holy but that we may draw others to God and Christ.
Finally we say “Amen,” meaning “so be it,” a variation on Mary’s Fiat, “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and we are reminded of the heavenly Mother Jesus gave us as He hung on the cross.
So you see, there is more than meets the eye in the simple Sign of the Cross. May we use it thoughtfully, prayerfully, frequently, and may it transform us into the image and likeness of Christ and His Mother.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I thought today I’d tackle a fairly controversial issue, really a kind of constellation of controversial issues that fall neatly under one umbrella. My excuse for doing so is our second reading from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Let me review some of what Paul said to the Christians living in the great pagan seaport city of Corinth.
“Brothers and sisters, the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord . . . Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? . . . You are not your own . . . Therefore glorify God in your body.”
It sure doesn’t sound as if Paul were buying into the “I have a right to do whatever I want with my own body” philosophy current today and current among the pagans who vastly outnumbered the Christians of Corinth. Is this just an idiosyncrasy of Paul? Did Jesus have anything to say on this subject? How about this?
“From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness . . . and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
Or this, from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And a bit later in the same sermon: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
In a pagan and sexually permissive world, one of the things that stood out about Christianity from the beginning was what seemed to the pagans its bizarre, utterly unrealistic sexual morality. Ancient Greece and Rome were perfectly comfortable with adultery, fornication, polygamy, homosexuality, contraception, abortion and infanticide. Christians, while not always living up to their own lofty standards, opposed all of this and said that God created man and woman to be joined in a permanent, exclusive bond, expressed in a sexual act designed by God to symbolize and deepen this bond and to produce new human life, which was to be treated with reverence from beginning to end.
Up until less than a century ago, no Christian body disagreed with this belief. Right up to the present, it remains what the Catholic Church teaches. So you have the testimony of scripture, the historical witness of Christians versus pagans in every age and place, the unchanging teaching of the Church for two thousand years, and now you have the majority of Catholics who simply aren’t buying it anymore.
In the interest of truth in advertising, I want you to know that for however much time you have me here in Our Lady of the Snow, you’re stuck with a priest who does still buy it all, lock, stock, and barrel. That doesn’t mean I look down on you if you disagree, or that I’ll be mean or nasty or abusive if you pick and choose which teachings of the Church you accept. In fact, it’s much more likely that I’ll be abused for teaching what the Church teaches than that you’ll be abused for dissenting from Church teaching.
I read an article just the other day about a priest in Ireland who is publically supporting gay marriage and announced at Mass that he himself is gay. He received a standing ovation. Given the world we live in, I expect I’d be more likely to get such an ovation by announcing my intention to leave the priesthood and marry than I would by preaching any official teaching of the Church.
I’m not complaining. I know the world I’m living in and I’m used to it. What I’d like you to do, if you’re among the many who have sided with the world against the Church in one or another of these issues touching on sexual morality and the sanctity of human life, is ask yourself, given what you disagree with, can you defend and justify the Church teachings you still adhere to?
How do you feel about polygamy? What about co-habiting and sex before marriage? And at what age? 18, 16, 14? 14 is the age of consent in some European countries. And if that’s okay, and plenty of people seem to think it is, then what about an adult and a 14 year old, as long as everyone’s consenting?
You see, the Church’s teaching on these matters was never easy, but it was clear, consistent, and coherent. Sex is for marriage, between a man and a woman. Marriage is indissoluble. Mess with any of that, and everything begins to unravel. Ultimately the only standard is hormones and consent. That’s just about where we are.
I know I’m a dinosaur, but I’m in good company: St. Paul, Jesus, the Church. Again, I don’t dislike you and I won’t spurn you if you disagree with me. And last I looked, the Church can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do or prevent you from doing anything you’d like to do. She proposes. She doesn’t impose. And she wants to be your friend, even if you disagree. Me too. I’m not sure anyone has a right to expect anything more than that.
Some of you may have heard me talk about Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., no relation to Eliot. He’s a very smart guy, a great teacher; he has a website (www.spitzercenter.org) and has written some really good books. In one of them, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, he recalls a childhood incident that shaped his entire future. He was twelve years old at the time, and it was Christmas. I’ll let Fr. Spitzer tell the story in his own words.
“One particular Christmas, when we had completed opening our presents and my siblings and I were going to Mass with my mother, I felt an unusually acute happiness that I couldn’t ignore, and so I said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m feeling very happy, but I’m not sure why.’ She responded, ‘Well, it’s probably because you received all the presents you wanted.’ But I answered, ‘Mom, I did get all the presents I wanted, and I’m very grateful, but I don’t think that’s what’s making me happy. This is different.’
“She thought for a moment, then said, ‘Well, maybe you’re growing up and are thinking of things beyond presents. Maybe you’re happy because you’ve grown to appreciate your family and you’ve had an extra intense experience of them this Christmas.’ Now I was lucky to have had a really great family, but I said to my mom, ‘Uhhh, I really don’t think that’s it.’
“So my mother looked at me and thought about it some more and then, as if inspired, said, ‘Well, maybe it’s the joy of the whole communion of saints coursing through your veins, as they celebrate the birthday of Jesus.’ I have no idea why she said this, but somehow I knew she was right. ‘Yep,’ I said, ‘I think that’s why I’m so happy’”
Over the course of more than 38 years of priesthood, I’ve seen quite a few children who seemed especially touched by God and His grace, children like Fr. Spitzer when he was just twelve years old. He realized something all the world seems intent on missing, something even many of us Catholics are in danger of losing at our own terrible peril.
Yes, Christmas is about family and friends, presents and parties, music and merriment, but a lot of people don’t have any of these; and in heaven, the angels and saints are celebrating not these things, good as they are, but a birthday, the greatest, most important birthday in the history of the universe. They’re celebrating Jesus.
As a boy, Robert Spitzer was given the privilege of participating in some small earthly way in the joy of that celebration. Some of that joy coursed through his veins, and he knew that there was something more than presents, or even family and friends. There was Jesus and His saints and the joy they shared and were willing to share with us. It’s a joy available to the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, the loneliest of the lonely. It’s a hint of what’s in store for us for all eternity, unless we give our hearts over to lesser things.
Go home tonight, my brothers and sisters; enjoy your presents if you have them; enjoy your family if you have any. They’re gifts from God. But don’t forget His greatest gift. Don’t miss the chance to let the joy of the angels and saints in heaven course through your veins. Remember what it is that they are celebrating this day.
Happy Birthday Jesus! May He bless and keep us all.