Fr Billy Swan
In many cemeteries, you can see crosses made of stone over the graves. And if we look on those crosses, we notice that most of them have a circle that joins the vertical part to the horizontal part of the cross. These crosses with the circle in the background are found all over the country and are known as ‘High Crosses’ or ‘Celtic Crosses’. More famous ones include those found in Clonmacnoise and Moone, Co Kildare. The circle that forms part of these crosses symbolises the sun and the resurrection. That is why we call the day of resurrection ‘Sun-Day’ and explains why many churches were built where the worshippers inside would face East in the direction of the rising sun so that they could worship the ‘true Son’ who is Christ.
The structure of these high crosses is rich in meaning for us Christians. On one hand they call to mind the passion of our Lord and all he suffered on the cross, taking on all that is wrong with humanity onto himself: injustice, hatred, violence, betrayal, treachery and cruelty. The symbol of the cross reminds us of the nature of God as a suffering lover who was prepared to ‘empty himself’ as St Paul says in his letter to the Philippians and as someone who was ‘humble…even accepting death on a cross’. In the cross we see the extent to which God’s love was prepared to go in order to reach us and save us. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. After Calvary, none of us can say that God doesn’t know what suffering is like, or that he doesn’t care or understand. On the cross Jesus entered into the darkness of evil and defeated it.
That is why the ring or circle around the Irish high crosses is so important because it speaks of resurrection with the cross or beyond the cross. It tells us that the cross is not the last word, that suffering is destined to end and will give way eventually to new life. I think all of us need to be reminded of this. We share in his cross on the way to sharing in his resurrection. The place where I see this taking place is in my own life and and all people of faith. What seems like a time of trial without any sense or meaning can give way to hope and new life.
I found a good example of this expressed in a letter published in the ‘Messenger’ magazine. There the person wrote: ‘When faced with serious health problems in recent years, there were times when I felt overwhelmed. But I kept praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his blessed mother and my favourite saints. When the clouds lifted and problems were resolved, I could see that God’s love and support had been there all the time in the faces and caring touches of all who have helped us through our dark time’.
This is what we celebrate today with the triumph of the cross. It dares to celebrate victory over what we fear most namely death itself. It dares to believe that even when we can’t see the sun for the clouds, the sun is still there. In Jesus time, the cross was the most feared symbol of all. It was used by the Romans as horrific threat that said ‘if you mess with us, you will end up on one of these’. After Jesus had risen, Christians dared to use the same cross as a symbol of victory for Christ had been killed on one and yet rose victorious. Jesus spent three hours in agony on the cross but his resurrection lasts forever. If the shadow of the cross falls across our lives it is only because there is a light shining on the other side of it. The suffering of the cross will come and go but resurrection is for eternity. Jesus did not come to do away with suffering or to explain it but to fill it with his presence. He comes to us today not to solve all our problems or take away our struggles but to fill them with his presence. As we pray at every Mass, ‘through Him, with him and in him’, we will move from suffering to new life. This is our hope and the hope of all Christians.
Today we pray that the triumph of the cross may continue in the lives of so many people who struggle courageously with many crosses. Today we thank God for their witness to hope that points to resurrection. We think and pray for all those who are lost in the darkness of the cross and who cannot see any light. May the Irish high crosses reawaken their hope of the light of resurrection that lies beyond their cross and every cross that is endured with faith and love. ‘The endurance of darkness in love is preparation for great light.’ (St John of the Cross, Dark night of the Soul).