The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a commemoration and a celebration of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection.
Through these, salvation and the very doors to heaven were opened to us. Because of the cross, we have access to an inexhaustible source of eternal life: we are cleansed and purified from our sins by the waters of Baptism, and in the Eucharist we drink from the fountain that flows from the heart of our crucified Savior.
Jesus’ journey to the cross was set in motion long before the events of those final days in Jerusalem. It began in the garden of Eden, when sin and suffering, sickness and death came into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience. In that moment, humankind’s communion with God was broken, and the world became alienated from its Creator, infected by evil and entrapped in Satan’s deceits and allurements. Yet, full of love and mercy, God reversed the consequences of Adam and Eve’s fall by sending his own divine Son into the world to conquer sin, Satan, and death, and restore the human race to union with himself. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, . . . in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
No Greater Love Than This
Jesus, the eternal Son of God, assented to his Father’s plan for our salvation and willingly took on human flesh to fulfill that plan. In fact, “the desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his Incarnation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 607).
In the incarnation, Jesus took on a human nature like ours so that, by his crucifixion and resurrection, he could rescue us from eternal death. Because of Jesus’ great love and his total submission to the Father, even to death, the human race was redeemed. Our relationship to the Father has been restored, and we are able to share again in eternal life. As the Catechism notes,
By embracing in his human heart the Father’s love for men, Jesus “loved them to the end,” for “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” [John 13:1; 15:13]. In suffering and death his humanity became the free and perfect instrument of his divine love which desires the salvation of men. Indeed, out of love for his Father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his Passion and death: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” [John 10:18]. (609)
Years of ordinary life and faithful obedience to his earthly parents lay between Jesus’ birth in the stable at Bethlehem and his last journey to Jerusalem. It was in these years that Jesus matured in his human character to face the task his heavenly Father asked him to carry out (see Luke 2:51–52).
When we recall Jesus’ earthly life and, most especially, his journey to the cross, whether in prayerful meditation, in Bible study, or in the celebration of the Eucharist, we are not just recalling the historical account of an obscure Jewish carpenter, nor are we simply reminding ourselves of the significance of this man’s death and resurrection. Far more than a memorial service or a theological review, our reflection on Jesus’ passion and death is an opportunity to accompany Jesus on his path.
When we read and study the gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days or hear them read at Mass as we celebrate the Eucharist, we should try to live these events with Jesus as if they are happening now, in the present. For it’s as we reflect on the scenes of Jesus’ passion that we live out anew with him the mystery of the redemption he won for us. And reliving the mystery of redemption means experiencing its transforming power in our own lives, for through the cross we have been set free from bondage to sin—released from Satan’s stranglehold by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Reflection on the passion of Jesus should be a regular part of our spiritual life. Indeed, many of the greatest saints—among them Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila, Clare of Assisi, and Paul of the Cross—found inspiration and strength by meditating on the Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ life and death, and they encouraged others to do the same.
But it is especially during the season of Lent that the Church urges us to contemplate Christ’s passion and death and its meaning for our lives. Through our Lenten prayer and practices, we become more open to the Lord’s work in us as he purifies our hearts and helps us to love others with his love, free of sin and selfishness. And as we grasp the full truth and reality of our redemption, our desire will grow stronger to be obedient to God’s will in all things, just as Jesus was perfectly obedient in submitting to the Father’s plan for our salvation.
Our Own Journey as Followers of Jesus
So great was Jesus’ love for the Father and for us that nothing could turn him aside from meeting his death on Golgotha. We have been called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps—and that call to be his disciples reaches into every aspect of our daily lives: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:25-26).
Jesus asks us to follow him with this same resolve and abandonment to the will of God made possible by faith in his fatherly care. Discipleship entails a costly emptying of self, but its rewards are great, for we enjoy the companionship of the One who loves us beyond all measure.
Jesus did not try to take an easier road or avoid the journey to the cross. He “set his face” to Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51) and to his suffering, not turning aside from it. Today he still challenges each of us to this same perseverance, but he does not expect us to make this journey on our own: he has gone this way before us and is there to accompany us each step of our way. And because of the resurrection, we know that our journey will end on that final day, when we will gaze with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord.
This is a selection from Jesus’ Journey to the Cross: A Love Unto Death by Jeanne Kun TWAU Press 2009.