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McTeigue: Why we say “Ave Crux Spes Unica!”

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Ave Maria’s Father Robert McTeigue, S.J., preached this homily today for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (the Epistle and Gospel for the Mass came from Philippians 2:5-11 and John 12:31-36):

When you look at the cross, what do you see? Do you see an accessory, or do you see a necessity? I ask this question because it seems to me that much of our culture, in both secular and Christian circles, sees the cross only as an accessory. I say that because it seems to me that very many people, both secular folks and self-identified Christians, seem to be unable to come to terms with intractable evil. What do I mean by that?

I call intractable evil the kind of evil that cannot be reasoned with, that cannot be explained by human motivation alone, and that stubbornly endures even while it seeks to spread. It’s like the mold you get in your basement that you can never quite seem to get rid of. Even after you scrub and repaint, the smell remains, and the mold inevitably comes back.

Many spokesmen for our times, both secular and self-identified Christian alike, seem to suggest…

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…that there is no such thing as intractable evil. Their words and actions, implicitly and explicitly, assume that that all conflicts can be resolved by “dialogue.” They assume that every human problem has a human solution—ideally—a government solution. They appear resolute in their conviction that human wisdom and human goodness are sufficient for human need and human perfection.

That core belief, namely, that malice can be reasoned with and human nature can heal and complete itself, raises a very difficult question. If that core belief is true, then we must ask, “Why then would we need a savior?” And even if the advocates of human sufficiency conceded that Jesus is useful as a savior because He embodies the very highest degree of niceness, even with that concession that we somehow still need a savior, albeit a sugarcoated one, we must come back to my original question: Is the cross a necessity or not?

Apparently, some folks, even some folks reputed to be Christian, say “not.” Here’s an illustration. There are churches from which the crucifix has been removed and replaced—if one could call it that—with what has been called a “resurrectifix”, that is, a flying Jesus jumping for joy, but with His cross nowhere to be seen.

How can anyone think that’s a good idea? How can anyone, but especially a self-identified Christian, speak and act and teach as if beholding the crucified Christ were not necessary, not compelling, not absolutely desirable?

Now, I am not inclined to speculate about the intentions of another, nor am I inclined to judge the state of another man’s soul. But I can give an account of why I insist on the absolute necessity of Christ crucified. I proclaim and cling to Christ crucified because I know my sin. My sin! Not just my quirks, faults, foibles and failings. Not just my mistakes, indiscretions or peccadillos. I know my sin.

I know how it looks and stinks and burns. I know that my sin is cunning even as it is irrational; I know that my sin is deliberate even as it is feral. I know that my sin whispers to me like a lover and shouts at me like a prison guard. I know that I choose and use my sin even as it seduces and uses me. I know that my sin has caused me to slap the face of the Holy God and yell, “My will be done!” I know that my sin has driven me from my Father’s house and caused me to live as if I were an orphan. I know that my sin, which I cling to even as I find it repulsive—I know that my sin is woven into my heart and mind and will like a cancer. I know that apart from the shed Blood of Jesus flushed through my body and soul—unless I consume the fruits of His sacrifice offered on the cross at Calvary—apart from that amazing grace—then my sin will finally consume me.

I know all this about my sin and myself. And because you are here at this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I suspect that you may know the same about yourself and your sin. You and I both know that you cannot invite Satan into our lives and then expect him to behave. We

both know that we can’t reason with our sin. We both know that our sin will never be satisfied with being a junior partner or even an equal partner in our lives. No! Our sin wants authority over every last bit of us! We know that the poison of evil found in any fallen human heart cannot be negotiated with, cannot be persuaded even by the most earnest dialogue, and cannot be cured by human good intentions alone—even if the good intentions are enforced at the point of a government-sanctioned gun.

Therefore, we know that dialogue, tolerance, unity, diversity, sincerity, credulity, utopianism, and enthusiasm, whether taken individually or together, are insufficient to remedy the evil with which the fallen human soul is infected. People who take their own sin seriously are skeptical about human good intentions and resolute in their clinging to the cross of Christ. Why?

Perhaps this illustration will help. When I was teaching seminarians, they asked me about how to become a good confessor. I told them that the first step to becoming a good confessor is to be a good penitent. Only a man convinced of his own need for the sacrament and so knows the matchless joy of a good confession can ever become a good confessor. A man who has prayed not to die on his way to confession will have the compassion and generosity necessary to invest hours in the confessional. Such a man will be ready to hear a confession anytime, anywhere.

Likewise, those who know the merciful and healing embrace of our Crucified and Risen Lord, those who know that they have been ransomed and purified by innocent blood—those persons will surely and rightly and stubbornly and gladly exalt the cross of Christ.

So, in the presence of those who would make idols of counterfeit dialogue and of universal chumminess, we must join Saint Paul and cry out: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them

that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

Please! On this day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let’s not be coy, wavering, tepid, or ambivalent about what we must do. We must take to heart the promise that Our Blessed Lord made to us. He said: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself.” In Him, and in His Pierced Heart which is the great furnace of love—in Him and in Him alone can we find the healing and perfecting of human nature. In Him and in His love revealed in His Five Wounds—in Him alone can we find the atonement for human disobedience. And in the Crucified, Risen, Glorified Body of the Only-Begotten Son of God—in Him alone—can we find the one remedy for evil.

Our privilege today is to stand at this altar and to be present again at Calvary, where the horror of the Cross yielded our salvation and our hope of glory. How shall we respond worthily? I will ask you to pray today and for every day this week for three graces, for three special blessings. I ask you to pray to be amazed, to be grateful, and to be bold.

Pray to be amazed—to look upon the cross as if for the first time. Pray to be grateful—knowing that you were rescued from an eternity without hope. Pray to be bold—determined to declare the one saving truth: “Ave Crux Spes Unica!” “Hail to the Cross—our only hope!”

The audio of the homily is available at this link. Father McTeigue is currently finishing a collection of homilies and essays on preaching entitled, I Have Someone to Tell You: A Jesuit Heralds the Gospel. He recently began writing a weekly column.  He earnestly seeks your prayers that his life and work be to God’s greater glory – and he invites your comments.

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