Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross September 14, 2014
Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola
Chestnut Hill MA
Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J.
The sonorous sound of Aramaic rose from the pews of Mother of God Church in
Detroit. Above the altar and crucifix, light flooded through a stained-glass window that
depicted Mary and the baby Jesus standing on fertile fields threaded by two rivers. As
everyone present surely knew, these were the Tigris and the Euphrates. Detroit has long
been a gateway city for Iraqis, many of whom are graduates of the high school and college
that were run by the New England Jesuits until we were expelled in the late 1960’s. Today,
a wave of new immigrants is seeking refuge from brutal oppression. Churches have been
destroyed, monasteries attacked, entire cities purged, people crucified. For the last decade
the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq have suffered at the hands of the same kind of terrorists who
killed David Haines, Steven Sotloff, and James Foley. Over the last decade the total Christian
population of Iraq has dropped to about 400,000 while as many as a million, by some
estimates, have fled. Christianity may essentially cease to exist in a country to which the
apostles brought the gospel in the first century.
The Chaldeans have long been hoping that their plight would be noticed, yet it
seems to have taken the videos of three journalists being beheaded for much of the world to
finally heed the warning. According to Francis Kalabat, the Chaldean bishop in Detroit, Iraqi
Christians have long been asking, “What’s happening to us? Where’s our government?
Where’s the U.S.? Where’s the world? Where’s the church? Where’s God?” As he recounted
those questions to Samuel Friedman, a reporter at the New York Times, Bishop Kalabat
reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a crucifix. “We are called the Church of Martyrs,”
he said. “That’s our pain and that’s our saving grace. Our faith isn’t a theory. It’s not a set of
teachings. It’s a person and we’re called to be like him. When I look at this evil,” the bishop
said, “ I want to be Rambo. But that won’t do any good. We carry the cross for a reason.” 1
Those of us gathered here today do not experience the persecution that afflicts our
sisters and brothers in Iraq and in many other parts of the world. Yet, for us as for them,
our faith isn’t a theory, it’s not a set of teachings, it’s a person. It’s the person of Jesus Christ.
And we, like them, are invited to carry His cross; and we, like them, hold His death deep in
our hearts; our pain, our saving grace.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. What a strange
juxtaposition of words. “Feast” implies celebration and joy. “Exaltation” communicates
power and strength. Why would any mentally healthy person want to exalt an instrument
of torture, debasement, and death? When we think of the crucifixion, the words
“celebration,” “joy,” “power,” and “strength” do not, at first reflection, leap to mind.
Our faith tradition, as evidenced in today’s readings, invites us move beyond first
reflections, to go deeper, to see reality through the eyes of faith. Paul’s Christological hymn
in the letter to the Philippians reminds us of the immensity of God’s love, the God who
emptied Himself, the God who humbled Himself, the God who become one of us to teach us
by His saving action what it means to be truly human. And we hear in John’s gospel that
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him
might not perish but might have eternal life. On this feast, we celebrate a gruesome
Based on an article by Samuel Friedman. “As Iraqi Christians in the US Watch ISIS
Advance, They See Slow-Motion Genocide” New York Times Saturday September 6,
instrument of torture because we believe that, at the end of the day, tender mercy wins out
over cruelty, humility vanquishes pride, justice triumphs over villainy, sincere love
extinguishes hatred, and life is victorious over death. We believe that, as with the risen
Lord, God the Father will transform suffering into compassion; God’s grace will turn painful
and ugly wounds into glorious and holy wounds. It is the paradox of redemptive suffering;
as we hear in Peter’s first letter, “by His wounds we have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). And
Pope Emeritus Benedict proclaimed: “Christ’s own wounds, transformed by His redemptive
sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life
and hope.” He added, “I believe deeply in the healing power of His self-sacrificing love –
even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a
new beginning.” 2
All of us have had our share of suffering, even if that suffering pales in comparison
to those called to martyrdom. I end my comments with a prayer, but first with a preface.
Last June 24, my sister went home to God after a life marked by illness and other challenges;
life had not always been easy for her. Several years before she died, I had given her a book
of prayers by Jesuits entitled Hearts on Fire. The day after hear death, her husband gave me
the book. Many of the pages were dog-eared and underlined. From the notes, it is clear that
she went back to one particular prayer often. And so, it is fitting I think, on this Feast of the
Exaltation of the Holy Cross, to conclude with a prayer that expresses a desire for deep
intimacy with the One who suffered and died for our sake. It is a prayer that my sister
pondered time and time again, and that reflects, I believe, the deep faith of those who suffer
in Iraq’s Church of Martyrs and other troubled corners of the globe. The prayer illustrates
beautifully the words of Bishop Kalabat: “that’s our pain and our saving grace. Our faith
isn’t a theory, it isn’t a set of teachings, it’s a person.”
Jesus, may all that is you flow into me.
May your passion and death be my strength and my life.
Jesus, with you by my side, enough has been given.
May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross.
Let me not run from the love that you offer.
But hold me safe from the forces of evil.
On each of my dyings shed your light and your love.
Keep calling me until that day comes
When with your saints, I may praise you forever. Amen.3
A contemporary version of the Anima Christi, the “soul of Christ” prayer written by
the late David Fleming, S.J.