The Feast of the Cross

This past summer I took a week-long pilgrimage to Israel. I was lucky enough to visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre on three separate occasions: once to visit Calvary, once to visit the Aedicule (or the place of Christ’s burial), and once to attend mass. On my first visit I climbed up the stairs inside the church to the place where the cross of Christ stood. The rock of Golgotha was laid bare, only protected by a sheet of glass. In the center lay a small golden shrine for pilgrims to kneel and pray. When I prayed it felt like the Cross was still there, and in a way, it was.

To some it may seem silly to attribute such importance to a rock; but the importance is not the rock itself, it is the events the rock has seen. On that rock “they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle” (John 19:18). On that rock Christ showed the greatest devotion, he died so that we might be saved. His own sins did not lead him to that cross, for he had none; instead he died for our sins, so that we might be washed clean in his blood. This was the greatest show of love, this was the love that that rock still stood in testament too.

But how are we to understand Christ’s love? We are often told that Christ loves us, but what does this really mean in relation to his death? In The Seven Last Words the Venerable Fulton Sheen offers an interesting interpretation of Christ’s passion worthy of consideration. A central lesson of the passion can be drawn from the fifth word of Christ as pronounced by Sheen, “I thirst” (John 19:28). The gospel reports that through parched lips our savior proclaimed his thirst, and he asked for it to be quenched. “He,” Sheen states, “the God-Man, who threw the stars in their orbits and spheres into space… now asks man–man, a piece of his own handiwork—to help Him.” And so the sprig of hyssop, soaked in that wine laid aside for the savior, was raised to the lips of God to quench his thirst.

Christ in his last moments gives to us the highest example of love, and he begs us to help him. He carried his cross to Calvary and was erected on a tree that pierced the sky, surrounded with the lamentations of heaven. He proclaimed his thirst, and he drank the wine soaked into that sprig, but his thirst was not quenched. Sheen argues that his body thirsted, but his spirit thirsted as well. He thirsted for our communion with him, for us to love him as he loves us. He thirsted for our redemption and salvation. His thirst was that which could quench ours for eternity, and He wanted nothing else- for he loved us unconditionally.

He in his all gracious mercy has given us the answer on how we are to quench his thirst. For as Sheen states “Love wishes also to be eternally united with the one loved, and God has so loved us that he has promised us His Father’s mansions, where peace and… joy reign.” As the soldiers soaked that sprig with wine, so too was the cross soaked with the blood of God, and through that cross he asked us to enter into communion with him, for only then would he not thirst. We are each called to quench the thirst of Christ, to drink the wine that was soaked into his cross- the wine that became his blood and was poured out for our salvation.

Some might draw an initial criticism, for Christ himself stated that “Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).  But Christ did not break his word, in fact he fulfilled this prophecy. For wine was lifted to him at the end of his passion on the tip of a Hyssop branch, the same branch that God commanded the Israelites to use in the Passover. It is written “Then take a bunch of hyssop, and dipping it in the blood that is in the basin, apply some of this blood to the lintel and the two doorposts” (Exodus 12:22). This symbolism reveals the truth of the matter. Wine is lifted to the son on the same branch that once carried the blood of a lamb, used to save God’s chosen people. This same branch was used for the wine that was to become the blood of the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God, so that we might partake in the second Passover.

We are therefore bound to that tree upon which God was nailed, just as Adam and Eve became bound to the tree of good and evil. Our redemption became dependent on Christ, just as their corruption became dependent on the forbidden fruit. Sheen states that “It was by weakness and disobedience at the foot of the tree of Good and Evil that Eve lost the title of the Mother of the Living; it is at the foot of the tree of the Cross that Mary by sacrifice and obedience regained for us the title of the Mother of Men.” With that first tree we were forbidden from eating of the fruit of good and evil, and once we did we were condemned to eat of it forever. Once we ate of that first tree, our fate became dependent to the second- the cross. We must now continually return to feast upon the fruit that is the blood of the son of God, to feast upon our savior, so that we might be redeemed.

For this purpose Christ instituted the Eucharist at the last supper, and on the cross he revealed to us its purpose: to bring union between us and him, and to show us his love, so that we might love him in return. We are to love him by worship and veneration, by fostering and inspiring virtue, and caring for one another. But we are also called to love him by engaging in holy communion. Only through communion can we be with Christ, for at the table of the last supper we share in his pain, we share in his triumph, and we quench his thirst.