Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
If you’ve ever watched those commercials of researchers testing the safety of new cars by crashing them, you may recall seeing–often in slow motion–the seeming collapse of the entire front of the car. Initially, one’s reaction might be to consider such a vehicle distinctly unsafe and image that a truly safe car would be one that could withstand the force of impact without buckling or collapsing quite so easily. And yet it is precisely this collapsing in just the right places that absorbs the force of the impact and is more likely to save the life of the driver. Similarly, although armorplating is usually associated with stopping bullets, there have been instances when something as soft and yielding as a pillow has almost miraculously stopped a bullet. And so we encounter a seemingly paradoxical situation whereby an approaching force of energy and potential destruction is not resisted or opposed but yielded to and absorbed, and in the process its destructive force is either neutralized or considerably weakened.
The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross is the celebration of a similar paradox in which the hate-filled forces of evil and destruction vented themselves in a fury on one who did not resist their violence and hatred but, rather in apparent weakness, freely delivered himself into their hands. And by not retaliating in kind and instead yielding to this tidal wave of hatred, malice and violence, he was not only able to neutralize but actually destroy evil’s destructive power. And what, as it were, absorbed the force and energy of hatred and evil directed against Jesus was not some stoical refusal to retaliate against those who tortured and taunted him, but rather the infinite power of Christ’s love which is more powerful than any force in the universe. And yet, from our limited human perspective, this love seemed anything but powerful in the face of the hatred and evil which seemed to triumph as his lifeless body hung suspended on the cross. And thus we find it especially difficult to personally adopt Christ’s heroic response to violence, hated, malice and insult. And yet today’s feast is challenging us to do precisely that: imitate Christ’s response to those who hatefully and unjustly sought his death by refraining from retaliating in kind. For us too, our refusal to retaliate in kind is not going to be a stoical resolve but rather flow from our participation and sharing in the divine life of Christ which is, of course, synonymous with love.
But lest this sound somewhat abstract and theoretical, it is important to realize that this non-retaliatory response to hatred and evil is not something that operates only in those major and dramatic instances when, for example, Christians are called to witness to Christ by the shedding of their blood; instead, this principle is at work in even the most trivial situations and circumstances of daily life when we are confronted with those more subtle expressions of sin, evil and malice. And, indeed, one could argue that it is precisely in these seemingly trivial situations that our imitation of Christ’s response to hatred and violence assumes special significance. In this regard, one only has to think of the initiation of some minor altercation between two people. A voice slightly raised in irritation is met by another voice slightly raised in irritation. And before long this insignificant altercation can quickly escalate into a major “shouting match” and can even lead to physical violence. If, by contrast, the second person had been able to, as it were, absorb that irritation and not retaliate in kind, it is possible that the initial irritation would quickly have dissipated and the issue have been more amicably resolved.
Imagine then how different our world might be, were we able to imitate our Lord in his response to evil and hatred—both in their dramatic and their mundane and more subtle forms. How many vicious cycles of discord, animosity, division and violence would be broken or even prevented from being set in motion in the first place if, instead of retaliating in kind, we were able to absorb into love the many, varied and even trifling expressions of hatred and evil directed against us. But lest we be daunted or discouraged as we reflect on how difficult this can be, let us remember that this love with which we can absorb the varying degrees of hatred, malice and evil inflicted on us, is not something we have to create or provide for ourselves; it is offered freely and without measure by the one whose very being is love and in whom we are destined to likewise become love! For as Saint Paul assures us, this love will be poured into our hearts through the Spirit that has been given us.
Accordingly, on this patronal feast of our community let us, even now, strive to reflect ever more fully what we are steadily becoming, namely, love, and with this seemingly puny, insubstantial spiritual armor strive to stand firm in a non-retaliatory stance, absorbing into love the varied assaults—great and small—of hatred, malice, anger, irritation and insult encountered in our daily lives. And in doing so we will truly be witnessing to the Triumph of the Cross which is nothing more than the ultimate Triumph of Love over evil, hatred, violence and discord. For, in those immortal words from the Song of Songs: Love is as strong as death and many waters cannot quench love, neither floods drown it.