Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Cross followers

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the April 10, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Just before the celebration of the Sunday Mass – like, at least, the last 20 minutes – the presiding priest normally is occupied in the church itself “setting up.” Activities like putting out the candles, the bread and wine, the Communion vessels; assuring the presence of servers and readers; such small tasks as these become an anxious last-minute focus of attention. God forbid that some minor housekeeping detail should distract from the flow of the liturgy!

Because this time of preoccupation tends to keep us indoors as the people gather for Mass we priests often miss another aspect of “setting up” for Mass – the gathering of God’s people. But last weekend I caught an unexpected glimpse of this scene.

I had just finished teaching this year’s class of catechumens and literally was rushing to our parish church (uncharacteristically late). My vantage point was peculiar. Here were all these people headed for a singular set of doors. Some folks walked slowly because of age. I spotted a wheelchair and a couple walkers. Some meandered alone. A few were arm-in-arm. Several obviously were families. Most looked chipper and had smiles on their faces. Others looked like they were headed to the dentist’s office!

Yet all were coming to Mass. The predictable later-comers trickled in after Mass began, but by 40 seconds before Mass time the congregation was pretty much in place.

Then the procession began - led by the Cross of Christ, lifted high by the server. That’s when the liturgical importance of the processional Cross struck me with a special impact.

A variety of reasons bring us to Mass: legal obligation; parental “suggestion”; genuine hunger for God. Whatever may be the reason that might bring any us to Mass, the celebration begins by following the processional Cross down the aisle. What a vivid reminder of the central focus of our faith! Jesus, the one lifted high on the pole, is the One we follow. (And I always hope everyone also will stay until the end of Mass to follow him out the doors of the church and back in to the responsibilities and duties of daily life!)

A recent Sunday Gospel clarified even further the power of the Cross lifted high for the people to follow.

It was a familiar conversation in John’s Gospel, between Jesus and the inquisitive Nicodemus. Jesus links the serpent lifted up in the desert in the days of Moses with his own exaltation on the Cross on Good Friday. His reference was to the sojourn in the desert when God’s people turned their backs and grumbled against him. A scourge of scorpions followed – but at God’s direction, all those who looked on a serpent lifted high on a pole were saved from their well-deserved punishment. God had to be faithful to himself: merciful and loving, slow to anger.

Jesus tells Nicodemus – and us – that he himself will be lifted up so that all who look to him will be saved.

We have become used to looking upon the figure of Jesus lifted high on a tree. The crucifix has become the identifying mark of the Catholic school classroom. It surely should be a special point of focus in our Catholic homes. Some even proudly wear a crucifix around their necks as a piece of Christian jewelry.

In our comfort we forget the amazing gift of grace that the Crucifix represents. The serpent on the pole was raised in the Sinai desert eons ago as a source of a salvation – precisely at a time of grumbling against God. The crucifixion of Jesus was the source of life and forgiveness for us – precisely at a time of our sinfulness.

The one thing we have in common as we gather for Mass is the fact that we are all sinners. It is not without liturgical wisdom that every Mass begins with the recognition that we cross-followers are those who all too frequently grumble against the Lord and turn our backs in sin. There is not much difference between us and the Israelites of old who balked at God’s ways and sought to create their own path to happiness and salvation. They merited punishment for their chosen path of alienation. Our choices of selfishness and sin merit the same. Yet the God of Israel – the One whom Jesus has taught us to approach with the intimate confidence of “Father” – is so merciful and loving that even in the midst of our sinfulness the Source of our salvation is provided for us in Jesus. All who look to him will be saved from their sins.

Yes, it is true that in our presumably Christianized Western world we have become very used to seeing crucifixes – even now in liturgical settings as we follow one to the altar of Sacrifice. Unfortunately, it may be equally true that we have become used to the message of God’s saving love that the Cross represents – the reality that actually is re-presented at the Mass. We, the people of God, gather for Sunday Mass, not to participate in a Catholic cultural event, but to enter into the mystery of our salvation. Even when we neglect the gift of our salvation in Christ, Jesus still remains lifted on high for all those who seek life to follow.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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