By Denise Trull
Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Of all the days in the Catholic Church’s calendar, this might be the one that the world cannot, and will not, understand. It's not just the suffering that comes with the cross. Suffering is self-evident. We see it and experience it every day. No one is exempt, and no one in their right mind can deny it. No, it is the attached word "exaltation" that flummoxes the world, and if we are honest, even ourselves.
Exaltation defined as a noun is a feeling of triumphant elation, jubilation, rejoicing, and extreme happiness. Can there be such a thing when waking up day after day in the unrelenting pain of a chronic disease? Or battling against addictions of any kind? Or the worry and angst strangling a mother’s heart at the waywardness of a son or daughter? Are we elated at miscarriages one right after the other? Does this sort of fiat bring any jubilation? Does a hard working father find any triumph in the falling numbers in his checkbook even as he works long hours to support his children? Does anyone immediately rejoice at the word “cancer” just pronounced by their doctor? Are we elated at the envy of others, or wagging tongues, or lies told about us? It would be madness to exalt in all these failures and sufferings that seemingly stretch on endlessly into a murky despair at times.
And yet, we are commanded to exalt the cross -- these sufferings in our lives -- as something worthy to be praised and rejoiced in. So, we are literally at a crossroads. We find ourselves staring up at that looming suffering we have been asked to carry, and we are terrified we will fail, or run, or perhaps do any number of things except exalt it.
If the cross is a cradle, though, then our souls are like children. We must, once again, become little children even in our sufferings, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. No child is ever alone. We and our sufferings are cradled in a Mother’s arms.
One of the most powerful feelings connected with motherhood is a subtle one. It happens as you are standing or sitting behind your young child when you have asked him or her to do something hard: get a skinned knee cleaned, get a shot, return something they have taken without asking, tell someone they are sorry, or forgive someone who has made them angry...all those things you know you have asked them to do that are so difficult but must be done. The feeling, each time, is that familiar backward press into your body just to make sure you are there behind them as a sure support. It is a beautiful feeling. They almost always take courage from it -- that cradling support of your body enfolding them. When the hard thing is over, your arms seem almost instinctively to wrap around them from behind and squeeze as the sign that it is over and you are proud. Nine times out of ten, they will turn and smile up into your face with a look of triumph.
God does this with each of us. He gives us His mother. She stands right behind us as we face our sufferings. At times we can almost feel her arms cradling our sadness, our perplexities, all the hard things we need to do both great and small. Our Lady is right there letting us press into her, and she seems to be saying, “I know this is hard. The cross is the only way to Heaven. Understand, my child. I wish it did not hurt so badly, but I am here. Press into me and feel my strength.” And so we press. Slowly, we find, to our wonder, that we have somehow suffered, and well, just for that minute, that hour, that day, simply because Our Lady has wrapped her arms around us. And we feel it -- triumph. Exaltation.
We see this in others. That triumphant smile of forgiveness. The perfect peace on the face of one whom we know is bearing daily, physical pain. The acceptance of miscarriage with a humility that astounds. The good-humored patience of someone who accepts being misunderstood, without defending himself. An old, crippled man who comes to Mass every single morning. And we wonder. We wonder at the joy they betray in the cross they bear. I believe they have each learned so well how to press into their mother. They each have discovered the arms that cradle their cross and it has given them the courage to exalt its power in their lives.
I don’t think it is a random mistake that the Church put Our Lady of Sorrow’s feast the day after this one. Her feast that literally presses so close up to the cross. It is in Mary’s sufferings that we will find our strength to say “yes” to suffering as she did. It is in her cradling arms that we will dwell peacefully in our sorrows, our doubts, our troubles -- without running in fear. It is there we will discover that her sufferings make a soft place for our own to press into. Together with Mary, we can reach up daily to grasp the risen hand of Christ her Son, turning to her with a jubilant smile, a smile of exaltation. That just for one more minute, one hour, one more day, the cross has triumphed once again and will triumph daily until we are fully grown into the glorious New Man we are called to be.