Just after World War II, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote a best-selling book about his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz.
That book, Man’s Search for Meaning is considered to be a classic about the worst nightmare of the last century. Frankl describes how men, women and children coped with the horrors of the camp – how they were able simply to survive, day after day, week after week.
At one point he tells the story of a woman who knew she was going to die in just a few days. Despite that, he says, she was remarkably calm, even cheerful.
One morning, Frankl approached this woman and asked her how she did it. How was she able to keep her spirits up? The woman told him that she had come to a deeper appreciation of spiritual things during her time in the camp.
Then, he writes:
Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through the window, she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me…I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me. ‘I am here. I am here. I am life. Eternal life.’ ”
In that astonishing moment, Frankl touched on something profound. At the bleakest of moments, in even the darkest of places, we look for life. We want a promise of something better. We want to know that life goes on.
We crave hope.
Hope, however fleeting, was there in Auschwitz that morning. And, whether we realize it or not, hope is what has brought us together this evening.
In one sense, of course, we are remembering an event that seems hopeless — the agony and death of Jesus Christ. Tonight, in this liturgy, we hear once more the story of his passion. We experience in the liturgy a deep and mournful absence – no consecration, no bells, no final blessing.
For some people, it’s still customary to shut off the TV, turn off the laptop, draw the curtains … and pray. Some may light candles. Others may follow the Way of the Cross or pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.
The simple fact is: this can’t be a day like any other. Scripture tells us that on the day Christ died, the world – literally – cracked open. The earth quaked. To this day, we feel the aftershocks. As the old spiritual tells us, it causes us to tremble.
But in the middle of all this, we do something remarkable.
We venerate the cross with a kiss.
I’m sure some find it strange that we pay tribute to an instrument of death. But it is so much more than that.
The cross was not an end, but a means to an end – the method God chose to remake the world, using something so plain and fundamental, the medium for a carpenter. Wood.
Writer Julian Nunally reflected recently on how wood figures so prominently in scripture — from Noah’s Ark to the Ark of the Covenant to the Cross. He wrote:
“If wood in the Old Testament serves a symbolic reminder for the boundaries between death and life — and the secular and divine — then, the nailing of Jesus Christ to wood in the New Testament transforms the motif from a boundary to a doorway.”
Here is the threshold of our salvation.
Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.
The cross is invoked powerfully and poignantly when the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, which we hear so often during Lent. As the prayer puts it, Christ’s arms were “outstretched between heaven and earth to become a lasting sign of your covenant.”
We are reminded this day that it is a covenant that was sealed with nails, and splinters, and blood.
In the reading tonight from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about the suffering servant – foreshadowing Christ. Isaiah tells us: “He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth…it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured.”
In Christ’s cross, the wood we venerate and touch, we see part of the shoot from the parched earth. Nailed to this cross, he became one with it – and we are able to see this wood for what it truly is: a tree, like the one that prisoner saw, that holds out hope.
From within the four walls of our brokenness, behind the barbed wire of sin, we look out and look up — and we see this “tree” that served to bring about our salvation. This is how we know we are saved. This is how we know how much God loves us.
How we need that! So many in our world tonight feel lost, forgotten, desperate.
As one writer has put it, “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.”
The cruel, harsh reality is that Good Friday didn’t end 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. It goes on.
Last Sunday, Pope Francis captured our times with heartbreaking clarity and sorrow.
“In the folly of war,” he said, “Christ is crucified yet another time. Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons. He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters. Christ is being crucified there, today.”
And yet, Christ’s love and his Father’s mercy go on without end.
As the Holy Father explained:
“Christ constantly intercedes for us before the Father. Gazing upon our violent and tormented world, he never tires of repeating: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Despite the reality of suffering and hardship and death, despite the many times we continue to crucify Christ, Jesus — our savior, our brother — speaks on our behalf.
And this evening, the cross offers silent testimony, a quiet witness to hope.
It offers us the promise of something better, because of the one who gave his life upon it.
By God’s grace, the boundary becomes a doorway.
“I am here. I am here. I am life. Eternal life.”
Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world!