Today we celebrate The Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Symbolic of the discovery of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified by St. Helena in 326, today is a holy day which transcends many Christian denominations. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox among others, proclaim the significance of the Holy Cross. For Christians the Cross becomes the symbol in which to reconcile ourselves to God. The Catholic practice of “making the sign of the Cross” itself becomes a prayer. Indeed, there is no other more recognizable symbol of Christianity than the Cross. From car bumper stickers, to jewelry, to cemetery markers and gravestones; even to ornate and sublime churches of every kind- we can easily know who is Christian. Is this becoming a problem?
In the beginning of Christianity many suffered for their belief and faith in Christ. Many became martyrs, and eventually, saints. Throughout history, even to modern times, many have been persecuted for their Christian faith. During World War II, more than 2600 Catholic priests were executed in the Dachau Nazi Concentration Camp alone. Rebel organizations throughout Central America have used the kidnapping and execution of vowed religious as a means of intimidation. Coptic Christians in Egypt have recently witnessed their churches being damaged, looted and burned. Most recently extremist there paraded three captured nuns from a Franciscan school they burned, like prisoners of war. So dire are the circumstances in Egypt, that for the first time in 1600 years this past August, prayers and Mass were suspended at the Virgin Mary Monastery for fear of violence.
Now horrifically, the world is confronted by ISIL. Before I continue, I need to convey a little research here. This Islamic terrorist organization, is just that- a terrorist organization. It is not representative of Islamic peoples or the message of their founding prophet Muhammad; for even he considered Jesus a fellow prophet of God and Muhammad preached peace. First known as ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), they desire now to be referred to as ISIL- the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the Levant being an old French term which refers to all the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean region.) – or to be simple known as The Islamic State. Their means of influence are barbaric and brutal; so much so that even al-Qaeda, as reported by The Washington Post, has distanced themselves and severed political ties. According to the Human Rights Watch, “they (ISIL) stand to a global jihadist principle for the purification of Islamic and Muslims lands, even to the point of excess for their defense.”
“Open Doors”, a world wide Christian organization based in The Netherlands, tracks Christian persecution throughout the world. Releasing their 2014 list of countries in which Christians are at risk of biased attacks all, except for North Korea, are in Islamic countries. At the top of the list- Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt and Sudan. To dispel the appearance of a “holy war against Christians” ISIL itself maintains “Christians have options”, as reported by Catholics Online. “To avoid death, Christians may convert to Islam or pay a jizya.” A Jizya, is a monetary tax under Islamic law which allows “infidels” (someone who does not profess Islam) to remain in an Islamic country. Usually their homes are marked with a red cross, which itself can bring violence.
Without dispute, we have all witnessed the violence and brutality of late. From the barbaric beheading of journalists to the marched execution of Syrian soldiers in the desert. There indeed does seem to be a holy war brewing. Or more exactly in the words of a Bishop friend of mine, “an unholy war”.
What does this all have to do with The Exaltation of the Holy Cross? It is a stark reminder of what may need be endured for our Christian faith. Each day we must affirm our faith and evangelize for our faith. To live by and profess the message of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Whether it is in the face of radical Islamic extremists or radical Christian extremists, such as the Westboro Baptist Church. There are fundamental extremists in all denominations who have lost the basic message of their religions- God is peace.
At all peril, we must hold true to the message of the Cross. We must carry our own individual crosses, as Christ carried his before us, (and he helps us carry ours now.) There is indeed a war brewing. A war in which we will be challenged to the foundation of our faith. We pray for God’s mercy and peace. We pray for God’s justice. Indeed, we may find ourselves being God’s instrument of intervention for those who are persecuted and oppressed. For today, it is becoming more apparent that that is the reality behind The Holy Cross.
“Onward Christians soldiers, marching as to war. With the Cross of Jesus, going on before.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven; for in the same way the prophets were persecuted who were before you.” Matthew 5:10-12