The second part of the Liturgy of Good Friday in our Churches opens with the Veneration of the Cross. The Sacramentary directives speak not of a crucifix, but of a plain cross. The invitation which is repeatedly sung at the Procession of the Cross says, "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world."
Some historians believe that at the origins of this rite was the veneration of a relic of the true cross. What is revered is the instrument to which Jesus was nailed, the wood whereon death came to Him, but which has become for us the Tree of Life. Over the centuries and almost everywhere in the world, popular custom has established the use of the crucifix: a cross to which is attached the body of Jesus crucified.
Liturgists remind us that we have a twin rite here, twin of the Procession of the Paschal Candle in the Easter Vigil. These rites give the congregation the opportunity to express their devotion, But we begin, and wherever desired, end, by lifting up the Cross of Jesus, renewing ritually what Saint Paul in (Romans 3:21ff.) says God did with Jesus: He lifted Him up, he "placarded" Him on the Cross to reveal His justice, a justice which is His fidelity to His Promises of Forgiveness, His Faithful Righteousness which is our justification and our peace.
Some see this lifting up of Jesus' Cross against the background of the theme of glorification in the Fourth Gospel. For in that Gospel, Jesus refers to His death, at least four times, as his glorification (John 7:39; 12:16 and 23; 13:31; 17:1).
True, even in the Synoptic Gospels the two themes, suffering and glory, are held together. In Luke, for instance, the risen Jesus says that "the Messiah had to suffer and thus enter into His glory" (Luke 24:26). But in the Gospel of John, the two ideas have coalesced, so that the one verb, hupsoo ("to lift up") now sums up both.
"The Son of Man must be lifted up" has, in the Fourth Gospel, two meanings: Jesus lifted up on the Cross, and Jesus exalted in glory. "And I being lifted up from the earth, will draw all things, all people unto Me." (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32; and 34) Death and Resurrection are both only linked together, they have become one thing, the saving activity of God "placarded" on the Cross. John interprets the exposure of Jesus' broken and naked body on the Cross in the light of the glory which is to come; no, of the glory which is even now present.
For the Fourth Gospel, further, Jesus' death is His going back to the Father, which means (once more) that His death is seen in the light of what follows. Death is only a means of going back to the glory of God. A second verb, doxazo, has also fused two opposites: the glory is superimposed on the shame, the exaltation superimposed on the death. The early Church is slowly affirming with glowing clarity, the divinity of the Lord.
The distinguished Cambridge New Testament scholar, Dr. Morna Hooker, puts it this way: "It is well to remember, that when we speak about the glory of God, we are in fact speaking about the disclosure of His deepest nature. Thus, in His death, Jesus glorifies God and He Himself is glorified. In other words, we see revealed here the nature of God, and the nature of the Son. The glory of God is made manifest, not (as we might suppose) in the Resurrection, but in the shame of the Cross." (Not Ashamed of the Gospel, 95-96).
All this, really, is only putting in theological terms what Jesus said to Philip, in the 14th Chapter of John: Philip said: "Lord let us see the Father, and we shall be satisfied." And Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know Me? To have seen Me is to have seen the Father. Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?" (John 14:8-10)
We might transpose what the Gospel is saying here, in other terms, applying it to the Cross.
Within the Christian tradition, we claim that there is one particular point in our experience and in our world, in our history, where everything we mean by God is embodied, absolutely displayed before us, completely present to us. In the life, the dying and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth we see in human terms who God is, what it means to be God. (Michael J. Hines)
To which we add, to clarify: and so on the Cross we see, not a passing moment in history, but the deepest nature of God.
Dr. Hooker's book, on the death of Jesus in the New Testament, ends with these summative words: "The idea, common to Paul and John, that God's glory is revealed in the death of Christ is perhaps the New Testament's more profound insight into its meaning. For the background of the Greek word for glory, doxa, is the Hebrew kavodh, a word which is used to express what God is. The belief that God is revealed in the shame and weakness of the Cross is a profound insight into the nature of God. "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father," says the Johannine Jesus to His Disciples. And Paul claims that in the Cross, the power of God is revealed. By embracing the scandal of the Cross, and joyfully accepting its shame, these early Christians discovered the true character of God, and found that the the true source of joy consisted in becoming like Him. (Not Ashamed of the Gospel, 141).
To sum up, we might spell this out more clearly this way: from Jesus we learn that God is love, that God is perfect self-giving. (This, incidentally, is what the Trinity reveals to us). It is inherent in the nature of God that He gives Himself away as gift. And so Jesus, the imaging forth of God, lived a human life that was totally a giving away of Himself. "He that shall lose his life shall find it. He that shall hold on to his life shall lose it." (John 12:25f.; Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24) Jesus said that several times, in slightly different ways, It is at the core of His teaching.
And what of the Cross? it is the "place" where we see Jesus, in the fullest human realization and expression of Himself as the "self-portrait of God," the God who comes into the world, not to conquer or dominate it, not even to judge or condemn it, but to give His life, in love to give it everything of Himself. (John 3:15)
And because Jesus is what His Father is, and loves as His Father does, He too, gives away everything. He too loses everything in this world, even His life, and in a way, even His very self. Thus does He reveal God to us. And if we want to follow Him, and be like God, be like His Father, we too, must give ourselves away.
And that will mean, in some form or other, what we call the Cross. But the Cross taken up, entered into, in longing, in choice, in love. Taken up, (as John Dunne, CSC likes to say) as "heart's desire." Because it is love, God's dwelling in us, that enables us to do this, to give ourselves away.
What the Cross says is this: if you give your life away, in love, for people, as Jesus did, on our earth, in history, it becomes, it gets transformed into, everlasting life. Even now, the movie, City of Joy, ends with words attributed to an Indian philosopher, but surely paraphrasing the Gospel: "Only that which is not given away is lost."
There isn't space here (I wish there were!) to spell this out. It isn't abstract as it may seem. The saints have embodied it, in their lives. It is what gave their life its meaning. Every authentic Disciple of Jesus guides his or her life by it. "He who loses his life for My sake and for the Gospel, shall find it."
When you come to venerate the Cross, then, He whom you will worship, nailed to it, is truly the Son, Image of the Father whom you cannot see. And what He tells you from the wood is how much you are loved by God, how much God wants to give Himself to you in love. The Cross is the shining forth of that love, on the Cross, the Son embodies it, for you. That is what we mean when we say, He is the Son. And finally, if you want to follow Him and be like Him, and like the Father before Him, you, too must give yourself away.
FR. CATALINO G. AREVALO, SJ is Professor Emeritus at the Loyola School of Theology. This article is reprinted from his book, And They Shall Name Him Emmanuel. (Quezon City, Claretian Publications)