Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross. Apart from being a special feast for the Church, it is also quite meaningful to me and my family.

It was on this day, Sept. 14, in 1992, that my sister-in-law Kathy died from cancer. She had suffered with for 9 months, from her diagnosis in January to her death in September. I remember as I heard about her death—I was far away from home in Steubenville, Ohio, at the time—recalling what feast day it was and thinking that the Cross, a sign of contradiction, is not a symbol of despair, but a harbinger of hope. Kathy suffered so much during those 9 months, as did her husband, my brother Bernard, but in her suffering, her own Way of the Cross, she came to embrace the Cross more fully than she ever did when she was healthy. In her weakness, she became strong.

I could tell so many stories, but the one that stands out is that near the end of her life, a priest would regularly visit her at Mass. General Hospital, bringing her the Eucharist. Because of the medicines she was taking and the pain she was in, she was generally incoherent most of the time. But when “Father Joe” came to visit, she would immediately become lucid, welcoming him, and eagerly receiving the tiny morsel of the Blessed Sacrament she was able to receive. Jesus cut through the fog of pain and suffering to bring light into her life and to bring her the only joy that truly gives life.

My brother John spent many hours by Kathy’s bedside praying with her, and then when she couldn’t do it herself, for her, Rosaries and Chaplets of Divine Mercy. She truly embraced the Cross. One day, near the end, she told my brother that if her cancer, that suffering and pain, was what it took for Jesus to get through to her, then she gladly accepted it.

After Kathy’s death, I flew home for the funeral. I felt out of touch because I wasn’t there in those last days, and I kept my composure, even as I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the family at the end of the funeral Mass. But it was at the graveside, when everything was over that it truly struck.

The most tragic moment in my life, the one that touched me personally and deepest, was watching my brother turn from the grave of his wife, take his 2-year-old daughter’s hand and tell her, “Come on, Mary. Let’s go home.” Even now I get tears in my eyes when I think about it. Embracing the Cross he was given, after all the months of bedside vigils, the upheaval of life, the whirlwind of emotions and pain of Kathy’s death, Bernie now had to begin the rest of his life, to live every day, and to be a father to his daughter, Mary. He didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in despair, because he was needed. He would carry his cross in silence and with pain, mercifully receding in intensity through the grace of God, but there nonetheless. And he would be Mary’s father.

As I said before, the Cross is a sign of contradiction. What had been a tool of inhuman torture and execution is now a sign of hope, a symbol of love, Christ’s love for us and for His Father. It is a reminder that whatever suffering we bear in this valley of tears, Christ walks with us and then finally brings us to the summit of joy. By His death and resurrection we may receive salvation and the reward of eternal life in the sweet presence of the Lord.

Raise up the Cross and sing its glory!