Arts and Culture

The Universal Cross: The Revelation of God

Second of a Lenten Series

In his marvelous book, “The Passion and the Cross” (Franciscan Press, 2015), Father Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., offers numerous insights into the meaning and mystery of Jesus’ crucifixion. I have been either reading about, thinking about, preaching about, or writing about Jesus’ crucifixion for many, many years and yet Father Rolheiser presents insights that seem new to me. The opening paragraph of the second chapter is the following:

“Among all the religious symbols in the world, none is more universal than the cross. You see crosses everywhere: on walls, on hillsides, in churches, in houses, in bedrooms, on chains around peoples’ necks, on rings, on necklaces, on old people, on young people, on believers and on people who aren’t sure what they believe. Not everyone can explain what the cross means or why they choose to wear one, but most everyone has an inchoate sense that it is a symbol – perhaps the ultimate symbol – of depth, love, fidelity, and faith.”

The more I think about depth, love, fidelity and faith, the more aware I become of how related they are to one another. Reading Rolheiser’s book has helped me to appreciate anew how the cross sheds light on all four.

In recent years, for various reasons, the idea of depth has come to mean more to me. I have become very aware that there is a depth to my existence whose meaning I will never completely understand. There is also a depth to other persons that I will never completely or clearly grasp. I notice this especially with my closest friends, but I also notice it with people whom I meet only casually. Of course, there is a depth to God that I will never completely understand.

I have lived a very reflective life. Being a priest for more than 50 years and teaching philosophy for more than 50 years has led me to confront, examine and celebrate the mystery of God, of self and of other human persons. That these mysteries will remain mysteries to me until I pass beyond the grave, I don’t find a frustrating truth.

Rather, I often find a freshness and depth that seems like an invitation to embrace these mysteries more strongly and to live out their implications more enthusiastically. I also discover that the depth of each mystery can shed light on love, fidelity and faith. The cross provides a special light.

The cross sheds wonderful light on who God is, who I am and who other human persons are. Recently in a philosophy class at St. John’s University, I was trying to stir up wonder and awe in the students in relation to the truths about God that philosophy can reach. I am not sure how successful I was.

Awe and wonder and gratitude seem the proper response to the meaning of the cross. It is awesome that God has created each of us from nothing but that God should die for us seems mind-boggling. Perhaps it is a mystery so deep that we can only get glimpses into it occasionally.

I cannot think of any human experience that reveals the depth of the human person as beautifully as loving and receiving love. Love brings us into being. We are made to love, called by our very nature to be lovers. One goal of human living is to live as a self-gift to God and to others. This a life- long task but it is the vocation all of us are called to because we are persons. I believe that every law in the Catholic Church and especially every sacrament exists in order to help us become more loving. The great sign of love that Catholics have, and indeed all Christians have, is the cross.

Related to both depth and love is fidelity. To make a vow or promise to God or to another human person is to say with your life, “I am for you. I am at your service. You can count on me.” Being loyal and faithful is not only a test of love but also taps into the depth of a human person. The most freeing act that a person can make is a life commitment. Many today think of a life commitment as primarily cutting off options, limiting the opportunities to grow. The truth is the exact opposite. We become more free by giving ourselves away.

The cross tells us about the depth, love, fidelity and faith of Jesus and invites us to imitate him. All Christian faith is tied to the meaning and mystery of the cross and illuminated by the cross.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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